Risk, innovation, tenure… and secret science

With SOPA protests gumming up the internet yesterday (and leaving me prone to distraction by websites like this one), my evening was free to try something new, so I headed to the Bell House to learn a little bit about the universe. Happily, my first trip to the Secret Science Club was a delight, even though I couldn’t get in the door. By the time I arrived, NYU cosmology professor David Hogg had already gathered an overcapacity crowd in the event space, so I figured I’d warm up a bit and have a drink before heading back home.

The premise of the event is simply great, and I love how much of a crowd it gathered.  People kept pouring in, packing the front lounge, all of them disappointed to have missed their chance to hear a free talk about astronomy. (The recent coverage in the Times couldn’t have hurt.) Actually, I love that it was so full that I couldn’t get in. When 8 p.m. hit and the talk began, I was even happier to find that the lounge had decided to broadcast the session into the bar area–so I could stay cozy on a sofa with my drink and still get my fix of black holes and red shift.

Despite all the mysterious talk of dark matter and neutrinos, the thing that stuck with me most (undoubtedly because I had already been thinking about it) is that our current academic system doesn’t really know how to reward good work on theories that don’t end up holding water. Hogg emphasized the importance of taking risks in order to do truly innovative work, and noted that many times such risk is at odds with the academic credentialing system. Incorrect theories don’t result in published papers, lines on CVs, or items for a tenure dossier. But without risks and innovative thinking, research will only progress by small increments, because incremental advancement is the safe way to garner professional rewards of publishing, tenure, and promotion.

I like to think that at their best, funders can help encourage innovation by cushioning the financial risk that accompanies professional risk, and also by providing a certain validation of the work being done. Still, what matters most in the academic system are academic credentials. As means of scholarly communication are changing and tenure dossiers are beginning to look different (for instance, the recent MLA convention featured a workshop on evaluating digital materials for tenure), I hope that we might be in a moment when the credentialing system is undergoing some changes and is therefore a bit more pliable than usual.

But it’s hard to know how exactly to fix the problem. What would a tenure and promotion system that fostered risk and innovation look like? How can universities incentivize inquiry and exploration that may not result in a provable theory? These are major questions relating to systems deeply embedded in university structure, so I don’t expect simple answers. Still, I find some hope in the fact that the question is being raised not only in academic circles by incredibly smart and thoughtful people, but also at a free science talk at an out-of-the-way Gowanus bar in a room filled with non-specialists who are thirsty to learn something new.


3 thoughts on “Risk, innovation, tenure… and secret science

  1. Very good points. A system that would reward volume of work with no consideration of successful outcome would not be an improvement. Still, wouldn’t it be interesting to have something like a Journal of Failed Theories that publishes work that had a good idea at its root, sound methodology in its process, but simply didn’t lead to significant results? That kind of work is important. Plus, publishing it in some form would show what has already been tried so that future inquiry can build off of past failures, rather than starting again from scratch, saving researchers from recreating the entire failed experiment independently.

  2. How to incentivize innovation and risk-taking… Excellent question. Just spending a few minutes thinking about this, I come up with multiple angles:
    1. Sure, we want to encourage risk-taking.
    2. But does that mean we let someone work on a single idea for 6-8 years and it turns out…unworkable? Isn’t that an indication of future potential? (Not everybody is an Einstein!)
    3. On the other hand, the current university tenure-track system allows 6-8 years – wherein, one can, and should, try multiple ideas. So long as there isn’t a 0% (or very low) success rate, chances of getting tenure – and thus, more freedom – increase. So one might be tempted to try “safer” ideas during those initial years.
    Human nature being what it is, maybe post-tenure-track, one gets stuck in that “safer ideas” mode. Or maybe not. I don’t know – I haven’t gotten a shot at a tenure-track position, and my time-window is just a couple years at this new gig. Still, have got to keep trying, and if I succeed, that’s great. If not…I am the cushion for my risk-taking, I suppose – not distributed over an institution.

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