Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Ground Down by the Meritocracy

Another depressing look at the lives of young scientists at Nature:
In fact, scientific life was proving tough. He found himself working 60–80 hours per week doing teaching and research. His start-up funding had run out, he had yet to secure a major grant and, according to a practice common in US academia, he would not be paid by his university for three summer months. His wife had not been able to move with him, so he was making tiring weekend commutes. It seemed that the pressures had reached unsustainable levels. Something had to give. . . .

“I see many colleagues divorcing, getting burnt out, moving out of science, and I am so tired now,” wrote one biomedical researcher from Belgium.
When the best careers really are open to anyone with the talent, the only way to get ahead is to work harder than everyone else. And the competition to be the hardest worker seems to be very tough these days.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

Meritocracy isn't the real problem, here. Lack of jobs and decent working conditions is. If we spent half as much on scientific research that we do on warfare, we'd completely transform the global scientific community.

We don't value scientific endeavor enough. We have a huge potential supply of intelligent people who want to advance the state of science, but our scientific "industry" is pathetically underdeveloped. Worse still, we culturally, economically, and institutionally promote destructive behaviors - scientists are much more incentivized to place effort in retaining their job positions than they are in actually performing research. It's a mess.

It's a bit like if we had vast amounts of arable land, but didn't care to farm more than a fraction of it, and instead used that land for unproductive uses. New farmers attempting to break into the agricultural field wouldn't fail because of the meritocracy of hiring practices so much as they would fail due to absurd conditions that make it impossible to compete. It's not that the existing farmers are somehow markedly "better" than the new ones - it's that they're already entrenched in the few available positions.

Meritocracy only works properly on scales where differences between people are actually significant and granular enough to even be detected. When you have a gigantic potential supply, but only a miniscule demand, that magnifies the importance of even incredibly slight differences, blowing them out of proportion.

A difference that would be insignificant when comparing between 5 applicants for a single position suddenly becomes massive when comparing between 50, or 500, or 5000. Two individuals can be nearly identical, but when you have to choose between such large numbers, suddenly you're forced to rely upon normally meaningless minute differences to make a decision. "Applicant A is 0.4% more productive, but Applicant B is 0.2% more efficient. Descisions, decisions!" It's absurd! Why not just hire both?

Of course the reason we don't just hire both is because our scientific "industry" is so pathetically developed. The reason we don't just hire both is because we "don't have the money" - which actually means we have the money, but we'd rather spend it on making bombs and guns than on advancing science.

We're happy to spend government money creating plenty of jobs that produce aircraft and munitions, but we can't seem to find the taxpayer money to afford research and academics. Our population is full of bright, inquisitive minds who are excited and eager to explore the mysteries of the universe, advance the state of technology, and find ways to use it to make a better world, and we tell them "No, we're not interested in promoting that sort of stuff - but if you decide you want to help find new and better ways to kill people instead, then we can talk subsidies, grants, and everything else."