Opinions and action in academia

Why is it so hard to get people to open up in academia?

There are a number of reasons why people are guarded in any situation, and especially in a ‘professional’ setting. But in most cases, academia (colleges and universities that aren’t under control of various protocols and laws found in a federal agency) has what I would consider very weary groups of people that actively avoid topics outside of their science. As if voicing a personal opinion, or stance should somehow only be relegated to your personal life…but what is one’s personal life in academia? In most cases, it is your cohort, your lab mates, your advisor, friends from classes, or friends from some sort of group associated with school. So when your personal and professional life in academia are almost always the same, why does it seem (at least to me) that it is faux pas to be entirely open about one’s beliefs or opinions wherever you are, whenever you want? I’m not suggesting discussing the potential benefits of utilizing LSD for stress-relief during someones Master’s defense, but what about at a lab meeting…?

Are we simply worried that people wouldn’t like a particular opinion and then judge us in a negative light? Or that there might be some repercussions from a statement that might make others uncomfortable? I argue that as academics, what better place is there to have discussions, debates, or even arguments over things beyond our very specific scientific fields? We are typically informed, though sometimes selectively, and well-reasoned folks, that generally have a great deal of respect for people around us. So why not discuss deep (or not-so-deep) issues with your fellow science nerds and/or advisors, and peers?

I don’t have an answer, but only a suggestion. Say the controversial thing, ask the weird question, get people involved, start a group that just talks about odd things, and push boundaries together. While not everyone likes to drink, bars are usually a good place to meet up and talk shit with people. I find ecologists tend to be much more vocal and open about many topics, but then again, not everyone shares a similar background, not everyone has had an open, ‘free-spirit’, traveling lifestyle and some people enjoy keeping to themselves, so that should always be kept in mind as well.


Getting people together to act in academia

The next thing that seems hard to do in academia is to get a collective effort to participate in some action that isn’t related to the science. For example, the March for Science was huge in 2016, and pretty good in 2017. Clearly a response to Trump and Trump’s disastrous policies, but what happened since then? Are things better? Of course not, they are worse and continue to get worse. So why can we not maintain our actions outside of our sometimes long-term, sustained experiments? What is it about our world that make this seemingly so hard to keep going?

One answer is obviously turnover. Grad students are temporary, 2-6 years or so, but in the age of Dropbox and Google Drive, it is beyond easy to maintain records and documents from one event or organization and simply pass them on. We have Slack, which is a great tool for larger scale collaboration with groups of people, and of course the many video conference options to actually interact (through a screen) with people to organize. Yet we still falter. Do we individually care less about some things? Likely not, but perhaps we should learn something from those more business-minded about corporate structure and figure out how to maintain groups, organizations, or simply events.

The other answer, is unfortunately that we are ‘too busy.’ This is pretty common for all grad students to say (like 25,000x over the course of year), but is it really true? Are we so busy that we can’t block out 1hr a week to get together and discuss various things beyond our experiments, field work, lab work, etc. that can culminate on a fun, inspiring, collective action beyond our thesis/dissertation worlds? I would argue that it is really about planning, initiative, and commitment, which are all scary words. I am not good with these things, but I tried, and it mostly worked. It takes effort, sometimes beyond which we are willing to give, but that is another reason why creating structures that can exist without one person are important, and planning for the next wave of people becomes extremely important.

I guess I’m writing this because I am worried that it is ALWAYS easier to not do something, and ALWAYS harder to get ‘busy’ scientists to participate in things outside of their world, but I think it is necessary. One of those things that can bring our worlds (in science and academia) out into the ‘real world.’ This is of utmost importance in a real world of disinformation, baseless decision-making, and demonization of either the sciences or even academia broadly. Part of being a society is understanding what other people do in society, but another is actually seeing what they do in society. We know what police do (good or bad), and we see what police do (good or bad). You generally know why your mechanic took a half a day to fix your car, but does your mechanic know why you spent three hours recoding and running a for loop in R?

We need to collectively try our best not to be the most elite scientists in our field, but to be the most integrated scientists in our society. We need to speak the language of our mechanic or stocking clerk at the grocery store and not the language of python and n-dimensional hypervolumes (one of my favorite things in science). Also remind yourself why your grandmother might give a shit about what it is that you study, and be able to explain to anyone at any time what is is and why YOU (deeply, personally) care about it. We should really try our best to get over ourselves, and show everyone why we love what we do.

With that said, I guess I should try to organize next year’s March for Science.


Published by Dan Revillini

Ph.D. candidate Soil Ecology Lab Department of Biological Sciences Northern Arizona University

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