Doing good science versus doing a successful science career

A former student of mine wrote to me a few days ago, saying that he was on career cross roads. He could see different opportunities, different paths and wanted my advice on which path he should take.

While I like questions, I always encouraged students to ask questions, questions like this make me nervous. Apart from the risk of someone faithfully following your advice and then failing badly, with or without blaming you, what makes me uncomfortable is the thought: should I pretend to know the answer? Even probabilistically? Did I myself take ‘right’ career decisions in my life? But even more fundamentally, is there really anything called ‘right decision’?

At first year of college, the stage at which important educational decisions happen, I had no idea what carriers are and why does one need to worry about them in an age when we should have been enjoying more than worrying. My mother was a medical practitioner and wanted me to get into medicine. I had nothing much to say for or against that so I tried preparing for the exam. I did work surprisingly seriously for my nature. Today I feel I was very fortunate to score less than what was required to get into medicine. But that time I had no clue. So I didn’t feel much good or bad myself except sharing my mother’s and other relatives’ disappointment. At that time almost everyone who missed medicine used to take microbiology and so I did. There was hardly any question of decision making. After completing Bachelors one is naturally pushed to Masters so was I. No hard decision making was involved.

I did make hard decisions later in life. Having one business proposal, one research position and a teaching job, I preferred to be a teacher and that was a conscious decision. I loved teaching and this remained unchanged till the end. But after 10 years of teaching I thought I was getting stagnant, wanted a change and joined PhD in wildlife. Fortunately there were no age bars for PhD that time. But I wasn’t very serious about finishing PhD. I was keener on living in a forest and working with wildlife full time for a few years. PhD came as a bi-product. On a couple of occasions my PhD was in danger but I felt nothing about it. I got it ultimately. Those years were so enjoyable and enlightening that PhD was a minor and sparable reward. At a later stage, a faculty position at IISc was almost in hand, but I decided to continue with teaching. During my teaching years, on three occasions I had requests from three different quite well known organizations to apply for Director’s positions in which I didn’t show much interest. Two even more difficult decisions were to resign from Garware College in 2008 and then resign from IISER-Pune in 2018, without having any alternative job in hand.

Were they the right career decisions? This I can’t answer, but I didn’t ever feel in my life, “I shouldn’t have done this or I should have done that”. Looking back, I realize one thing. I always weighed my interest in science over prospects of doing better science career. Doing good science and making a successful science career are two independent things. At times they do coexist no doubt; but at other times the two stand in conflict. What is good for science may be bad for making a science career and what needs to be done in order to make a successful career is not necessarily good for science. This is because science has an organizational structure and you need to mold yourself into that structure for making a career. Not everything in the organizational structure is scientific. The two main pillars of organized science, namely publication and funding do not operate on scientific principles. Both rely on peer reviews in different ways and the peer reviews are confidential. They are never made public. So whether they work fairly or not can never be scientifically tested. And the entire structure relies on something that has never been tested. How can it be called scientific?

Well, it is not true that it has never been tested. There have been a handful of attempts of testing whether the peer reviews work in an unbiased manner. All the attempts so far have ended up detecting significant biases in the system. So actually science organizations are standing on pillars that have been shown to be rotten. How can one expect good science coming from systems that have either not been tested, or whenever tested, proved to be biased.  But science continues to stand on the same pillars and people continue to believe that they work. This belief is not different from religious beliefs or from superstitions. So mainstream science has become a religion by itself because it stands on untested beliefs.

But if you are away from the mainstream, you can be free of those unsupported beliefs, which means you are free to do better science. In this case, the mainstream science community will not accept your science since for them only the science published by the peer reviewed journals, i. e. only the science based on religious beliefs is science. But that is their loss, not yours. The primary quality of science is that it is immensely enjoyable. If you are out of the mainstream science organizations, you can enjoy science orders of magnitude better because you don’t have to compromise your science in order to get published or get funded. But if you do so, if you decide to enjoy your science without compromising, you can’t make a career in science.

The organizational structure of science is changing towards complete monopolization. In the history of science there are examples of great contributions to science from “non-scientists”. Darwin was a school dropout and had no formal education in science.  Mendel was not connected with any University or the like. Today it is next to impossible to find such examples. Not because science cannot be done outside universities and institutes, but because it cannot be published or funded. I have seen many farmers, tribals, illiterates innovating or inquiring into a question, observing, experimenting and inferring from it. Interesting science and technology can certainly come from anyone but it is unlikely to be counted as ‘science’, only because it does not follow the rituals of the scientific religion. Today, for publishing a paper in most journals, the authors have to pay huge amounts of author charges, which anyone outside the funded science organizations cannot afford. Funding agencies will not fund even a brilliant person with proven research record if he/she is not within a formal science organization. Monopolization is a smart business tactic which is used by science organizations for preventing others from doing science.

If you want to do a successful science career, you have to be one of them. You can do good science from anywhere, but for a good career you have to be a part of that community. There is no other go. But you will not have any guilt feeling as long as you are within that community. This is because the human mind rationalizes everything and convinces itself that whatever we do is correct. By the very nature of the human mind we do this quite innocently and ‘honestly’. When you have to live in the biased world of peer reviewed journals and funding, you mold your thinking accordingly. You may yourself have seen and faced the biases but you keep on believing that the system is fair. You write projects which are more likely to get funded rather than writing it on a question that genuinely troubles you. While designing experiments, more than thinking about the real and natural underlying questions you will first think whether this will bring you a good publication. Rather than thinking what is a logical and sound design of an experiment, you would think what peer reviewers are likely to object to. You ignore a fundamental question asked by an undergraduate that you could not answer and instead think of what is currently fashionable in the funding market. On top of all you believe that this is the only way science can be done. Once the thinking itself is molded this way and you make yourself believe that this is the right way of doing science, it becomes increasingly more difficult to do good science. But you can be a successful scientist and if you are successful, how can something that made you successful be wrong? If you are confident about the soundness of your work but fail to get published or funded because you are not doing the then fashionable science, you may realize what is wrong with the system, but then you are a failure so nobody will listen to you. So the system continues to be what it is. It perpetuates along with all of its flaws and biases.

So there is indeed a conflict between doing good science and doing a good science career. It must be my sheer luck that my mind voted for good science over a successful career on every occasion. I had not explicitly thought of all this when I took all those insane decisions.

Now I can write back to that former student with sufficient clarity, “first decide whether you want to do good science or you want to do a bright science career. If you vote the former, I would be glad to talk to you for hours. If you are asking my advice with the latter in mind, I am afraid you are asking the wrong person. I have no first-hand experience of what needs to be done for a successful science career. I am afraid, I can offer no advice for you!!”

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