‘Proxima b’ and the (small) human component of a career in science

Guillem Anglada-Escudé's picture
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The discovery of a planet with some features similar to Earth has surprised many. The human story behind this breakthrough however is less known. For instance, that the team which has made the discovery is as multinational as it is precarious. As opposed to what happens in other professional careers, surviving in the scientific field nowadays is a savage task. A clear example of this is that each researcher who has a ‘position’ usually supervises and produces one new PhD student per year, on average. Considering that the number of vacancies for research staff remains approximately the same and that the working typical career span is around 30 years, this means that out of every 30 students all but one or two will end up working outside of the academic field. And those who end up on the outside tend not to be youngsters likely to have new experiences, but adults between 30 and 40 years old, usually with families. They often find themselves expelled from the system in a country which is not always their country of origin, once the field they have specialised in for more than 10 years is no longer relevant. On top of that, knowledge recycling is a virtue which is not promoted at all within the academic world, since it is preferable to hire somebody new.

In general terms, the scientific panorama has gone from the nepotistic model which had some evident problems, to the other end of the scale: a brutal liberalism based on an apparent objectivity in which the student is regarded as cheap workforce with less to envy than the exploited masses that George Orwell described in his novels.  

It’s not the way either to think that the problem will be solved by improving contracts or salaries. The problem is structural. By nature, innovative research needs prepared, flexible and motivated individuals so that science and knowledge can move forward. This is sometimes used (and abused) to justify and account for mobility programmes, such as the internationally well-known Marie Skłodowska Curie amongst others. In practice, the benefits of these programmes go to the research centres and to the consolidated cores in developed countries rather than to the individuals who, in theory, should benefit the most.

In Catalonia, these difficulties have to be added to an unstable system fitting of the Spanish model which periodically destroys the substratum and structure of research, not only in universities and research centres but also in the business and entrepreneurship network which promote them. From a cold and logical point of view, one could think that progress justifies the individuals’ sacrifices. What we are not bearing in mind is that when a researcher achieves a phase of consolidation and stretches their productivity to the maximum they become nothing more than a broken toy which has learnt to manipulate the system in order to survive. It is not necessary to hold a PhD to realise that this doesn’t necessarily lead to excellence.

To summarise, there is a series of very clear structural and conceptual problems in the Western model of scientific and technological development. Some countries palliate this shortage with programmes based on excellence for individuals or supporting entire research teams. The underlying problems are not that different from those in the public sector, but the extreme slowness of the hiring periods – six months between the application for and the filling of the vacancy – affect very negatively the individuals involved and therefore the research quality. In this vein, the Spanish model is a pathological paradigm. Other more aggressive models of hiring, which are based on excellence criteria, potential impact, hiring stability (at least in the mid-term), consolidation of teams, and promotion of technical staff (rather than only public servants) are required for any country which aims to play a role in the world as a scientific and societal point of reference.  

 

Guillem Anglada-Escudé

Researcher at Queen Mary University of London

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