Sunday, 23 February 2014

Higgs would not make it in modern academia - so what?

It's been a very busy week, hosting the ANITA 2014 Workshop and Summer School. It was an extremely good meeting, but has been quite exhausting. But today, a post about something that has been bubbling in my mind since the end of last year. Be warned, it's a bit of a ramble.

In The Guardian, physicist Jim al-Khalili reported on a chat he had with the new uber-famous Peter Higgs
In the article, Higgs reported that he "wouldn't be productive enough for today's academic system". (Actually, there's a couple or articles on this in the Guardian, the most recent, involving al-Khalili is here). Some have interpreted this as being a sign that academia is broken, and this opinion rings through the ultimate commentators on the web, those on slashdot. 

I have also heard similar comments from early- and mid-career researchers who are staring down the barrel of the leaky pipe of academic careers.

How can a Nobel prize winner be unemployable?

Before I continue, I need to lay some cards on the table. I think that the Higgs mechanism is pretty cool, and the discovery of the Higgs boson is one of the pinnacle discoveries in modern science. I'm not jumping on the band-wagon here, as I contemplated becoming a particle physicist when I, to quote Billy Joel, "wore a younger man's clothes". In fact, I was a CERN summer-student searching for, and failing to find, charged Higgs particle at L3 at the Large Electron-Positron Collider, the forerunner of Large Hadron Collider (LHC). 

I should also make it clear that I don't think that academia is perfect. In recent years, there has been a growing emphasis on impact - basically, what does the public get for the dollars it invests in research. Many countries now run immense programs to measure impact - Britain has the Research Assessment Exercise where as Australia has the Excellence in Research for Australia

These exercises look at the quality of research, much of it assessed by where a paper is published (papers in Nature and Science are seen to be "better" places for high quality research publications as opposed to the Bulgarian Journal of Basket Weaving). Also, the number of citations a paper receives (basically, how many times it is mentioned in someone else's work - note mentioned - not used) is also weighed up. 

Then there is the broader concept of impact, which can be harder to define. If there is a spin-off industry from research, that's impact. But there is also societal impact - if a result generates a media buzz and the tax-paying public finds it interesting, then that's impact.

This has led to a lot of bean-counting and navel gazing (and I should note that I am involved in this at my own university), especially as future funding may be tied to how well you do in such exercises. There is often a lot of chest-beating when the results are announced.

But some think that the exercises are flawed. Some research areas, such as maths, are notoriously slow moving, with small number of citations and taking years and decades before they are realised as being a breakthrough. And sometimes, there is a lot of focus on industrial engagement as impact is a major problem for fields such as fundamental physics.


So, getting back to the topic of the title. What Higgs is pointing out is that, given his publication record of only a handful of papers, universities would judge him to be unproductive (although his 1964 paper has an impressive number of citations). Does this mean that academia is broken?

The first thing to realise is that science has evolved a lot since Higgs was working in the 1960s. The number of people going to university has exploded, with increasing opportunities for people to go into postgraduate training. The number of people with PhDs keeps increasing, faster than the rate of faculty jobs. As many and early- and mid-career researcher knows, the number of opportunities available as you climb the tree gets less and less, and many people leave academia.

But there is another consequence of this, something which people don't like to talk about, is that academia has become more competitive, and in a competitive environment, competitive people tend to win. What do I mean?

Universities generally want to hire successful people, and success is judged on past performance, such as papers published, citations received, and grants awarded (very similar to the kind of things the Research Exercises look at!). Don't get me wrong, the potential for making future ground-breaking discoveries is very important, but while "Past Performance is No Guarantee of Future Results", a researcher's past outputs are taken as an important guide to future success. It is within this competitive environment that Higgs tells us that his CV would not stack up.
  
This is will not be news to academics reading this, but there is an important message, especially for those considering academia as a career, namely that academic careers don't just happen. Those that do well manage their careers. In this, I don't mean overhyping what's on your CV (although that does happen!), but thinking hard about the area you working in, the people you work with, where you publish your papers, which conference they talk at etc.

This sometimes comes as a shock to some. I still meet people who think that if they just hide away in their office and plug away at their problem, somehow a faculty job will find them. Ain't going to happen. 

What also comes as a shock is that academia is not a even playing field. It never is when competitive people are thrown into the mix. In all walks of life there are people willing to put in extra-hours and effort to get ahead, and academia is no different. I know that this is not music to the ears early- and mid-career researchers, as that many discussions about career progression centres on "work-life balance", but competitive people are not going to be barred from academia any time soon.

So, no, given the competitive nature of modern science, Higgs would struggle to get a job (although, once Edinburgh cottoned on that he might get a Nobel, they kept him on).

OK - I've typed a lot, but there is one more point I want to make.
What if Peter Higgs had left academia before his famous 1964 work? "Alternative history" is an interesting realm of speculation, but without Peter Higgs in academia where would be in terms of science?

Science is replete with the myth of the lone genius, the individual plugging away and coming up with the singular discovery that changes the world. This is propagated with things like the Nobel Prize which are awarded to at most three (living) researchers for a particular discovery. The lone genius is an extremely rare thing.

But, as ever, the discovery of the Higgs mechanism was more complicated than Higgs working alone, and several people were working along parallel lines. In fact, some dispute the name of the particle, based upon who they think deserve the credit for the discovery. Peter Higgs himself states that fellow physicist, Tom Kibble, should have shared the prize with him and Englert.

This often happens in science, where research is undertaken at the cutting-edge, there is a flurry of activity between differing researchers. A look at Nobel Prizes reveals that often they are given to those who were effectively in competition rather than working together.

Now, I am not trying to down-play Higgs insight and contributions, and I think he absolutely deserves the prizes given to him, but if we plucked him out of history, how different would modern science be? It's hard to tell, but I like this quote from Newton (who was often a lone genius!)
"I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me."
Science is a sea-shore of pebbles, ready to be discovered. If you don't pick one up, someone following behind you probably will (I've lost the original quote! - if you know it, answers in the box below).

To bring this post to a close, as I need to go and mow the lawn, my final thoughts.  Higgs not surviving in modern academia is not a sign that academia is broken, just that it is different to the 1960s. It is not perfect (and, to be honest, I don't even know what a perfect academia is), and has a number of problems, but we are still in an era of wonderful discoveries. It will probably be different again in 50 years time.

If Higgs had left academia, we would have lost his insight, but science would have still progressed. But here's a final thought for you to chew on. The next Einstein or Maxwell could be sitting in the slums of Mumbai, or a refugee camp in Somali, without access to education, let alone an opportunity to enter academia. When they get a proper chance to contribute to scientific advance, I am sure it will amazing, and I hope I am around to see it.

5 comments:

  1. All valid points. However, academia could still be a more level playing field than it is, and could be vastly improved with a small amount of effort.

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    1. I agree that it could, although I see it being a struggle to make it happen.

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  2. Although I agree with everything you've said, I think you've dodged the question somewhat. It is certainly true that modern academia is competitive, and that in a competitive environment you need to put some effort into managing your career. It's also true that without Higgs, somebody would still have come up with the Higgs mechanism, under a different name. But the real question is, is there too much emphasis on the number of papers you have published? This can damage the field in two ways: by encouraging people to focus on their publications and their careers to the detriment of the science, and by pushing out people who are excellent scientists but don't publish frequently enough.

    I'm not arguing that the system is "broken", but that there are sensible ways that it could be improved. Principally I'd like to see more emphasis on quality rather than quantity of publications, and more explicit recognition of outputs other than papers. It may well be a struggle to make this happen, but that shouldn't stop us being honest about ways to improve our profession.

    To take myself as an example, I've written a lot of code that would, with some effort to tidy up and generalise, be very useful to lots of other people. But I'm unlikely to put that effort in, because it would be better for my career to work on other things. I find it frustrating that the nature of the field means that I'm choosing work I think is less useful than it could be, because doing otherwise could harm my career. I'm not complaining for my sake - the work I do is interesting and productive, and I'm still in a job - but don't like the clash between what's best for me and what's best for astronomy.

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  3. Hi James - a couple of things

    * "quality over quantity" - this is a common cry - how do you judge this (other than citations etc)? And how long do you wait to make the judgement?

    * What is the secret of good comedy?






















    .. Timing!

    I have an article on the issue of contributions other than papers coming out today (I think) - I will post a link here and pop it on twitter.

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  4. To quote from an article I just read: "We need to judge early scientists on more than their paper output and citation count. We need to examine their contribution in a much broader context." I think that applies at later stages of a scientist's career too.

    It's not a simple thing to do, and I'm not sure I can make very useful suggestions. It requires the people assessing job applications to be very familiar with the field the applicant works in, or to have referees that are. One simple example might be changing the ARC DP form so instead of asking for "Ten career-best publications" it asks for "Ten career-best achievements", which could be evidenced by publications, code or other outcomes.

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