Culture and values in academia

I saw this recently on Twitter.

It links back to an article on Inside Higher Ed by Lynn Talton about better structure in one’s work life. Specifically it brought up three main topics that shouldn’t be neglected; “Getting Involved in Something Outside Your Research,” “Exploring Research Beyond Your Specialty” and “Prioritizing and Planning Your Development as a Professional.” These are all things that I agree are really good to do but which I don’t think are given the attention they deserve.

From my own personal experience while doing my PhD, I have seen those in leadership positions emphasising research and nothing else. This is even emphasised to the point where it is counter productive and where one’s work begins to interfere with other aspects of one’s life. I’m obviously not against research – that’s what we do as scientists – but, especially during training programmes, there should be a broader perspective.

Every year I have a meeting with my thesis committee to discuss my progress in my PhD. This is primarily about the research project but I haveve said that I think a PhD is a training process about a person, not just about the project, and I have included a single slide discussing some of my other activities. That has included things like volunteering at the PhD symposium and, due to campus connections, being interviewed in a short documentary. However, there’s never really been any interest in that aspect and I have actually been told that nobody cares about that!

To me, this quite different to the culture in which I grew up and studied. I don’t have the experience to say whether this is the difference between a university and a research institute or if the difference relates to a specific campus or institute or even country. I can say what some of these differences are and how I feel about them.

My academic career started at Rondebosch Boys, both the junior and the high school. I’m not going to say it was perfect or that I loved everything about it but it did instil many good values including that of helping others and a wide education. I think these would fall under “Getting Involved in Something Outside Your Research” andExploring Research Beyond Your Specialtyrespectively. For example, we had a weekly collection of food items which were donated to an underprivileged school where students were not guaranteed the luxury of food to eat. One of the verses of the school song echoes both of the aforementioned values.

Higher and higher we would grow,
Ever aspiring more to know,
Lifting our heads to the stainless sky.
Broader and broader we would be,
Spreading a boundless charity
Wide to the world as the years go by!

Once I matriculated, I went to study at the University of Cape Town which espoused many of the same values and even had societies, such as SHAWCO, to further those goals. During my masters degree at the Division of Human Genetics there was a lot of outreach, some of which is archived on their news feed. Some of the supervisors and students would have meetings with patient groups and there was a lot of emphasis on giving back to the community. For example, one of the senior staff started an initiative to donate various non-perishables to an old age home and another initiative had us all knitting blankets for  those who were homeless or disadvantaged.

I know these activities have continued because just a few months ago there was a university news article about some members of the division trying to get more black students into university. Collet Dandara was one of my co-supervisors and I helped Kamogelo Lebeko with the practical part of her honours degree. I am sure that initiative, as with the previous ones, were fully encouraged by the division. In fact Prof. Ramesar, the head of the Division of Human Genetics, once said that our research was not the most important thing that we do and firmly believed in giving back to the community.

I also witnessed a recognition that there was more to a person than just the research they were doing. At one point my supervisor warned me to ask whatever questions I had while he was there because he was soon going home to Cameroon for about two weeks and would almost probably not be reading his work emails very often. And Prof. Ramesar’s his bio ends with “Raj is married to Jenny, and they have two sons and a daughter. His nonacademic pursuits include bonsai and painting in watercolours.” There is no such similar information on the bios at my current institute. (Nor, admittedly, other researchers at the Division of Human Genetics.) But we got a sense that there was more to his life than just his work and his paintings were displayed in the corridors of the division.

Of course, there are contextual differences. South Africa has massive income inequality and a society that still hasn’t fully recovered from apartheid. Europe does not have the same sort of socioeconomic problems so one would perhaps not be surprised that there isn’t as much of an emphasis on charity. However, that doesn’t mean there’s no need to look beyond our laboratories and engage with others.

Some community outreach does happen and I have tried to be involved where I can. There was the Fascination of Plants day both this year and 2015 and the Lange Nacht der Forschung last year. In addition, the campus has the Vienna Open Lab, which lets school children have a chance to work in a laboratory. But these are still quite limited and I’ve even heard group leaders on campus and invited speakers speaking badly about how lecturing cuts into their research activities. This is an attitude I just can not understand. Those lectures are to train and inspire the next researchers, without them who will continue science?

A PhD is a training programme and, as such, I think it should be concerned about more than just a research project. The main goal should be training people with a specialisation in science but that does not just mean making sure they finish their project. Science is a way of thinking and we should learn to apply those skills in any situation, even outside the lab. Furthermore, we know that the vast majority of people working towards a PhD will not remain in academia for various reasons and it is irresponsible not to take such facts into account. These discussions on how PhD training should be conducted have been going on for years and there are places which are now trying to move beyond purely focusing on research, although it remains, as it should, the primary focus.

We can of course talk about ways to change training programmes and encourage a broader education but I think the reason that these things are not done is because what values are prized. As researchers we should be doing research and institutes and training programmes should facilitate that. However, people are more important and should not come after the research. Decisions that focus purely on the fruits of research as the outcome are not necessarily good for the people who are doing the work. However, decisions which focus on doing what is good for the people working at any particular institute will almost certainly benefit the research as well.

This cannot be accomplished if institutes see group leaders as a means to more fame and funding and group leaders see postdocs and PhDs as a means to further their research. It shouldn’t be okay to just say “we are a top class institute and so we do things this way!” That is a purely internal focus. While I was doing my masters, Prof. Ramesar was doing an MBA and he would spend lab meetings talking about Barrett’s levels of consciousness and the need to also engage the higher levels so that we could make a difference and serve our communities, both inside and outside of our own institutions. If research institutions move in that direction in terms of their values, I think many of these other issues will be solved in the process.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s