There have been several articles/blogposts recently pointing out that scientists are just like everyone else. For instance, they have emotions (see this Observer article from last week detailing the ups and downs of research life); and they get stressed, as fellow Occam’s Corner blogger Stephen Caplan pointed out, just like people in any other career. It is perhaps a bit sad that it needs to be stressed that scientists aren’t a breed apart, but the world – in particular the media – do seem a bit inclined to regard us as ‘different’. Unfortunately, if we are just like the rest of the world, that includes the fact that a certain proportion of us are also bound to be jerks.
A recent post by Thesis Whisperer asked if you get further in academic life by being a jerk. I don’t think this simply referred to scientists, but it certainly would include them. It provoked many, many comments most of which certainly recognized the ‘jerkiness’ of many of their colleagues, but not all of whom agreed this was the way to get on. I think this observation is also mirrored by office politics anywhere.
Nevertheless, if you want a concrete example of a spectacularly successful scientist who is anything but a jerk, look in this week’s Observer for the profile of neuroscientist and autism expert Uta Frith. A couple of weeks ago, when I was fortunate enough to attend the ceremony at which David Willetts conferred an Honorary DBE upon her, I learnt that Uta is a Fellow of three national academies (the Royal Society, which is where I have met her as her field is far from mine, the British Academy and the Academy of Medical Sciences); she is also married to a man (Chris Frith) who is himself a fellow of the first two of these. She has a ‘family’ of many successful ex-students (as well as a family in the conventional sense) who clearly see her as a wonderful mentor and friend: I know because I keep bumping into these women (unusually, all women as far as I recall) and they tell me so. As the Observer succinctly put it ‘Lack of empathy is not something Frith suffers from herself’. My own personal experience tells me that too. Uta is the exact opposite of a jerk, a wonderful role model, inspiration and friend to many, and it clearly hasn’t held her back.
Despite this obvious counter-example, academia obviously does have its fair share of jerks. The question is, can we do anything about it? I think a crucial first stage has to be to seek out ways of not rewarding the selfish, the loud-mouthed, the bad-mouthed and the downright nasty. We’ve all met characters like that, but if progression up the greasy academic pole required a fair smattering of good citizenship, demonstrated leadership of others and not just looking after your own little clique coupled with oversight of your personal but perhaps ill-gotten research grants, gained by doing down competitors, then maybe jerks would start to diminish in number. It does seem to me to be entirely possible that good citizenship can, in some shape or other, be amongst the criteria for promotion; my own university is certainly pushing it up the list of attributes required.
Historically, research success has tended to be the most important criterion, trumping anything else. Teaching was traditionally seen as a poor relation for a fast rise up the ladder, and that is bad enough. The ‘general’ contribution often hardly got a look in. Yet every academic department would grind to a halt if that ‘general’ stuff was done by nobody. It may include admissions, student liaison, mentoring of early career staff or working on the inevitable assessments – RAE, REF, TQA that kind of stuff familiar to the UK community; it shouldn’t be beyond the capacity of anyone to contribute something useful on some front or other. But many jerks perfect the art of such uselessness that they end up escaping what may seem like chores by their apparent complete ineptitude. This incompetence, of course, immediately disappears when it comes to something they actually want to do, like write a grant proposal or attract the brightest research students of the year to their own group. Such behaviour is very transparent. It should be obvious to any promotion panel when individuals play this game.
If such jerkish behaviour ceased to be rewarded in ways the jerks believe it should be, then maybe, just maybe, we would see a diminution of their numbers. And if jerks weren’t succeeding it would seem likely the next generation would realise that misbehaviour of this sort doesn’t pay dividends. That, as a grad student, trampling on those around you, nicking their apparatus without a by-your-leave and bad-mouthing other students’ presentations, was not the way to win favour and move a notch up the scale. Maybe we can make it a message that those with latent bad behaviour can pick up early enough so that they are able to stamp on their own failings before they are too deeply embedded in their psyches.
I think this is certainly a case where strong leadership by example, by departmental senior management teams, might make a big difference. Unfortunately, the current world can too often have departments in which the worst offenders hold too much power, too much money and have been securely established as the departmental golden boys (or girls). They have achieved this by virtue of the fact that they get their way in the world by their brutish behaviour and so acquire the resources necessary in order to make yet further progress. But a few committed senior individuals creating, as the Thesis Whisperer put it, an explicit Circle of Niceness could yet work wonders in transforming each individual department and hence the wider world.
Office politics are no different in academia than in Ricky Gervais’s Office. What is different is that academia relies on competition. The idea that the ‘best’ will rise to the top and the failures will drop out holds more currency in academia than in the average open plan suite of rooms of a Prudential or Marks and Spencer’s office. Nevertheless, we could try to redefine some parts of what ‘best’ means to include a little more humanity, give space for more emotional engagement such as in support for others, and an appreciation of service to the community and not just self. I’m with Thesis Whisperer on the importance of valuing niceness and not acquiescing in bad behaviour, wherever it rears its ugly head in our universities.