Arm The Disruptors

Last week, Science Twitter was roiled by claims that “disruptive science” was on the wane and that this might be reversed by “reading widely”, taking “year long sabbaticals” and “focussing less on quantity … and more on …quality”. It blew up, which is probably not surprising given that it first pandered to our collective angst and then suggested some highly congenial remedies.

Continue reading “Arm The Disruptors”

How to Talk to Kids With Dreams

A few weeks ago I listened to a bunch of super-enthusiastic high school students share their excitement about astronomy, astrophysics and the space industry. We were at the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand’s annual meeting; every year they fund a dozen or so keen students from around the country to attend the event. It’s competitive, with many more kids applying than there are places to take them. 

The students get to share what lit their passion for space, but as they recounted their stories maybe a third of them mentioned a teacher or career counsellor who had done their best to quench that fire. “There’s no jobs in that.” “It’s really hard,” “You can’t do that in New Zealand.” “It won’t help you get into university.” And I wondered who listens to a smart, ambitious youngster’s hopes and dreams and tells them to play it safe?

It isn’t all teachers – others told of enthusiastic and supportive mentors – but it was potentially way too many of them, even if the nay-sayers imagine they are protecting kids from disappointment or quietly steering them away from games that are out of their league. Ironically, this is happening at a time when there is a lot of talk about reinventing school – getting kids to code, preparing them for a future where machine learning, AI and 3D printing are big things, building baby entrepreneurs. But none of that will be much use if some teachers are telling students not to chase their dreams.

Ironically, when educators talk about preparing kids for the future, part of their message is usually that the age of linear careers is behind us and today’s kids will change jobs more far frequently than their parents did. Which makes it particularly strange for teachers to tell students to aim only at safe and dependable careers as they chart their educational trajectory.

So what should you say to a smart kid with dreams that would take them off the beaten track? Here’s my list: 

  1. Tell them “Wow that’s great. Go for it!”

  2. Say to them “That sounds like it’s going to be a lot of work.”

  3. Ask them if they know what they need to do to get to their goal. What skills will they need?

  4. Tell them “That sounds awesome” (whatever it is).

  5. Tell them “Go for it. Whatever happens, you will be OK”, but help them figure out what they are likely to hit if they miss their actual target. Don’t be negative, it just never hurts to look before you leap, to make sure they will be ok.

  6. Ask them, “What can you do right now that will get you closer to your dream?” Get them doing things today that will engage their passion.

  7. Ask “How can I help?”

Item 1 is easy, and it works for anything. Item 2 is honest – no-one sleepwalks to being an astronaut or an All Black – and it is likely part of the fun.

Item 3 is a biggie, and for some goals the answer will be more obvious than others. What should someone who wants to be a professional athlete do, beyond just training for their sport? I’m not the best person to ask about that (really, I’m not) but whatever you want to do, my guess is that some of the things that will get you there won’t always be obvious: one of my key skills as a scientist is that I like to write and know how to tell a story. (Seriously: every grant application is a story about what I would do if you gave me money – and it helps if I tell it well.) If a kid at your school wants to get into astronomy (something I do know something about), it could be a long wait before they can actually do astronomy. But astronomers need to know maths, computing, statistics and physics – does the kid you are talking to know this? Set them to finding out what is on their list. 

Item 4 leads into Item 5. If a kid chases their dreams, are they really taking their whole future into the Casino of Life and putting it all on 22? Or are they laying down skills that also lead to all sorts of other opportunities? If I am brutally honest, I will only retire once, and while my field is growing it is certainly not expanding fast enough to accommodate everyone who trains to work within it. Numbers as miserable as a 2 or 3% success rate for making the transition from a PhD to a permanent job in the field are thrown around – the situation is not as dire as that, but in astronomy the success rate may be around 20% for people who actually get PhDs. At some point, it is possible students stand a better chance of success if they don’t spend too much time stressing about the odds. But all my former students are doing well. Some have tenure – and others have successful startups or jobs in Silicon Valley where they use knowledge they acquired while they were working with me.

Someone chasing their dreams may be walking a high wire, but they can build a safety net by laying down serious and transferable skills. (And many of the people I know who pulled the cord on their personal Plan B made a conscious decision to do something new; ambitions change.) Help them figure out what those will be for them. The real trick to Item 5 is to help kids take measured risks without hinting you don’t think they can do it. And this goes double if you are talking to people who might feel that they won’t fit naturally into their chosen field – my friend Chanda Prescod-Weinstein often says that African American students hear well-meaning talk about a personal Plan B as “I don’t think this is for you”; the same likely goes for Māori and Pasifika kids in New Zealand, or girls heading into fields where women are scarce. 

Item 6 and 7: whatever it is they want to do, there will always be something they can start on right away. There’s no time like the present. And be there for them. Check in. Ask how they are getting on. And wish them well.


And one last question: if you’re a teacher, what’s your ambition? It’s got to be better to watch your students chase their dreams than, when they come to tell the story of their success, be remembered as the person who said they couldn’t do it.

CODA: It is also true that if we are talking about academia, it is not just the student’s job to be sure they have a Plan B, it is up to their teachers to recognise that many of them will need one, make sure that they get the chance to maximise their transferable skills and know how to demonstrate them to potential employers. But that’s a story for another day.  

IMAGE CREDIT: The image is from NASA.  

The Unforgivable Curses

Fabrication and plagiarism are the unforgivable curses of science – crimes of no return. If you are caught committing them you will not wind up in an academic Azkaban but you would be hard put to find another job in a university as a parking warden, much less a research role. Ironically, to outsiders these infractions may appear to be relatively victimless crimes. Do a few faked graphs really hurt anyone? If music can be downloaded with impunity is plagiarism a terrible sin? However, these transgressions are unforgivable because they undermine the integrity of the system, not as a result of their impact on individuals. An expert counterfeiter whose bogus Benjamins are never spotted by banks might claim that no-one was hurt by their escapades, but financial systems can be damaged by a flood of fake notes. Likewise, we trust the integrity of our colleagues when we build on their work. We tell students to “check everything” but this is an impossible goal, since at some point you would do nothing but verify the work of others, so dishonesty undermines science just as debased coinage threatens an economy. 

Last month the American Geophysical Union revised its understanding of “scientific misconduct”, a term encompassesing plagiarism and data-faking, to explicitly include a new category of crime – discrimination, sexual harassment, and bullying. These are transgressions against individuals, but the AGU’s decision recognises that they weaken science itself; systematically burdening those who are disproportionately on the receiving end of “poor behaviour”, blighting lives and careers, boosting inequality, and robbing the field of talent. This recognises that many female geoscientists experience harassment or worse in the field, often while they are physically isolated and far from help. Just last week sickening allegations of bullying and assault during trips to remote Antarctic valleys were levelled against David Marchant, a geoscientist at Boston University. It was telling that while many of the worst allegations were corroborated by others, some of Marchant’s defenders pointed out that they themselves had never witnessed such behaviour by Marchant and that these infractions were “historical”, with no recent allegations of misconduct coming to light. However, if this had been a case of data-faking there would be no ill-defined statute of limitations and “some of his work is legitimate” would in no way constitute a defence.

A similar paradox was visible last year, thanks to a defamation case pursued by astrophysicist Mike Bode against Carole Mundell, who intervened after he wrote a glowing letter of recommendation for a mutual colleague facing an active harassment investigation. The claim that Mundell had defamed Bode by this action was witheringly rejected but I cannot imagine anyone writing a letter of reference – much less a good one – for a person facing live allegations of intellectual misconduct. Moreover, the position in question was Chief Scientist in the Square Kilometre Array – South Africa, an organisation which will have a key role supporting South Africa’s engagement with a multi-hundred million dollar international collaboration involving vast amounts of public money from a half-dozen countries. This hire fell through, but the job was later filled by a scientist who had left (and was apparently “dismissed” from) a leadership position at the Arecibo Observatory while “under a cloud“, demonstrating just how hard it can be for a senior scientist to definitively torpedo his own career.* [This situation may also lead one to draw inferences about the institutional health of SKA-South Africa, but that is another matter.]

This is the same month that the Harvey Weinstein story broke and his serial sexual assaults appear to have been an open secret within the entertainment industry. Despite this, any number of male stars who had benefited from their association with Weinstein were shocked, shocked to hear the news, or to think that their industry may suffer from an endemic harassment problem. And while we lack Hollywood’s glamour, senior academics have a similar ability to make or break the careers of young people vying for their big chance, and it is similarly a breeding ground for abusive behaviour. Likewise, just as many men averred that they had personally never seen poor behaviour by Weinstein, many scientists assert that because they have never witnessed a colleague harass that person cannot be an harasser – a stunning lack of logic for people who spend their professional lives drawing inferences about events we cannot hope to witness with our own eyes. Likewise, we all know that many senior harassers in science are yet to have their “Geoff Marcy moment” and, like Weinstein, some are rumoured to have agressively lawyered up to keep a lid on simmering scandals.

If this is our truth, all scientists – and particular all white men in science whose progress has never been potentially impeded by our gender, our race, or our sexual identity – are complicit in having allowed it to happen. And it is on us to sort it out. 

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FOOTNOTE: *To be clear, the investigation of the original applicant was apparently never completed so these allegations were never formally substantiated. However, published sources refer to them as “sexual assault” so it does appear that they were of a serious nature. Likewise, the specific employment issues faced by the person now in the role have not been fully disclosed.

COMMENTS: Comments off on this one. Getting way more than normal and they didn’t seem to be heading anywhere constructive.