“I have worked hard for three years and now that I believe I understand the mechanism, the funding is over”. “I am at the third referee round in five different submissions and I am always getting different requests”. “My grant was not funded because of insufficient preliminary results”. “I do not understand why they got a promotion and I am struggling to keep my job with a similar track record”. “I worked days and nights and the panel dismissed me with meaningless questions”. “My friend never recovered from a mental breakdown”. “I have written the proposal for a month and it was rejected with one sentence, on subjective grounds”. “The referees were very positive but the panel was unimpressed”. “I did not get funding but those in the panels did”. “I got bullied but a committee found that nothing was wrong”.
“Yes, I understand you. It is unfair but this is how academia works”
No… it is not me moaning but a collection of whispers, complaints and shouts you can hear in the corridors of Academia. Along with comforting words, the response to a colleague in a temporary moment of discomfort or a prolonged stage of distress are often two. One might be an explanation of what a colleague might have done objectively wrong or how to avoid typical traps in the various stages of academic assessment. The other is just the acknowledgement that at least in many, if not all, cases… well… this is how Academia works and we have to be resilient and keep going*. However, this post is not about complaining but more about the human factor often lost in Academia.
In the last few days, twice I heard or read appeals of ‘being king’ to people in the academic context. Once, in a speech by our Director, Prof. Ashok Venkitaraman, opening our retreat on Friday. His speech did mention academic excellence but it was particularly focused on people as described by our colleague Dr Ben Hall.
His words resonated with most of us as kindness is far too often forgotten in Academia, probably because in very competitive environments, people are supposed to be all so full of themselves and thick-skinned that everything goes. In truth, like in any work environment, the large majority of people treat each other with respect and just a few then spoil it for everyone else.
Just a day later on Saturday, in a private conversation completely unrelated, a friend pointed out that the Teichmann laboratory at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, adopted as a lab motto the words “Be bold. Be brilliant. Be kind.“
These two almost trivial observations (from our Director and another successful Academic) made me think. Why do we need to make such appeals for kindness? After two decades of living a life within Universities, my experience of the Academic environment is of a very tolerant, liberal and progressive environment. Of course, there are plenty of issues to be fixed, common to other sections of society, but the general attitude and ethos – in my experience** – was mostly positive. Then why do we eventually feel the need to appeal to kindness?
My opinion is that the obsession for ‘independent’ academic assessment and competition is in part selecting for certain characters. Being ruthless and selfish helps in any competitive environment, as it increases the likelihood to seize resources. However, I do not think this is just the issue. Most academic assessment is either performed anonymously or by panels that often have no knowledge of the person they have to judge. Various forms of peer-review (either for publishing or funding) are designed to be objective and independent. While peer-review is the best system I can also think of, its issue is that – eventually – it is not objective and it is not independent but in trying to be, it loses any human touch. Even when interviews are at the core of assessment, these are brief (5-20mins) and very focused, in any case preceded by anonymous reviews. The lack of human connection and two-way personal dialogue, I think, dehumanize the process of assessment and triggers ‘unkind’ behaviours. The problem, perhaps, we focus too much on projects and not enough on people.
I might be still naive, but in my opinion, the most important resource in any work environment, and also in Academia, is people. Recently, we prepared a leaflet for outreach with the motto “Our superpower is you”, meaning that science main resource is one: people. Unfortunately, the structure of academic assessment and a highly tapered career pyramid with huge turn-overs at its base, create rent-seeking behaviours and an environment that can be harsh in general, or at least in key moments of one’s career. We should think about people investing in people for the benefit of people, not just in projects.
I know that this is perhaps a tiny bit too idealistic and any type of assessment has flows. Probably, we cannot really solve this problem, maybe it is not a problem in itself. But I would like to leave you, my friend, with a provocation. I dare you not just being kind (if you read until here you might agree with the general concept) but challenge everyone that is not, be kind when you review a paper or a grant, particularly when you have strong criticisms to share. If you are an Editor, the head of a panel, academic or not, I dare you challenging unkind behaviour and disqualifying any critique that is not delivered with respect. I dare you all speaking publicly about the need to be excellent in science, but also in our humanity. Because if we wait longer for a top-down change, even though many at the top are wonderful people agreeing with the ‘be kind’ concept, we will keep losing our human capital. I dare you last, to use this or any other badge of your choice in your website or public communication. The large majority of people is good people, in any environment, we just need to remind everyone that it is not acceptable to be otherwise:
* to avoid misunderstandings, I should clarify that I might also respond in this way, it is not a criticism on trying to be helpful explaining how the system might work.
** VERY IMPORTANT TO ME, this is my own experience. I am fully aware of other very different experiences, and structural problems. Here I am speaking about a general attitude and – as I am committed in Equality Diversity and Inclusiveness in Academia, I am fully aware that there are plenty of problems to be solved. I do not want that this specific statement about Academia being generally a liberal and progressive environment (which is what I think) will be misunderstood as if Academia is perfect, indeed my post would suggest otherwise.