Why we need a new culture of Science

By Joern Fischer

The role of academia is to improve our understandings of the world. Together with spiritual and political leaders, academics thus have a responsibility to help guide society towards a better future. To effectively fulfil this responsibility, academia must be one step ahead of the problems that plague societies around the world: how can we offer wise solutions if our own conduct just mirrors – rather than transcends – the problems that plague society at large?

Humanity’s single biggest challenge today is to sustainably share the planet with one another, and with other species. The jury is out if we can live up to this challenge. At this stage, we fail to cooperate at sufficient levels internationally to bring about a more equal distribution of food, education and wealth, let alone to halt human-induced climate change or biodiversity decline. Many regions of the world continue to be plagued by conflict, at least partly because lessons from the past have not been learnt. Explicitly or implicitly, we are obsessed with material wealth (and infinite material growth) even though we ought to know that lasting satisfaction results from connectedness with others and loving relationships (not more ‘stuff’), and even though we have known for decades that an economy based on endless material growth cannot be viable in the long term. We strive to remain forever young, beautiful and powerful, instead of facing our mortality and engaging with spirituality.

Academia mirrors the bulk of society’s competitive spirit and mindless obsession with quantitative growth. We compete for journal space, funding and faculty positions; we show off our intellect to each other but fail to show intellectual humility; and we produce ever more papers but ignore the fundamental trade-off that must exist between the quality and quantity of our insights. With few exceptions, academia fails to transcend the problems that the rest of society is grappling with. While we bask in clever debates and ever more refined analyses, the culture of academia as a whole largely mirrors the root causes of the very problems we ought to be finding solutions for.

Based on the (perhaps mistaken) notion that this bleak analysis holds up to scrutiny, a series of changes to the culture of academia would substantially increase its usefulness to the world. Leading journals as well as academic institutions and funding agencies could take tangible steps to change existing incentive structures to foster cultural changes such as those outlined below.

Foster cooperation rather than competition. As academics, we operate primarily in a culture of competitiveness rather than cooperation. Cooperation and collaboration exist, of course, but ultimately, academics operate in a culture of competition, for grants, journal pages, or faculty positions. While competition may foster new ideas in some cases, too much of it leads to polarisation and unconstructive debates.

Work between knowledge domains, not within them. Enhanced by a culture of competition, most academics continue to operate within specific knowledge domains, rather than across or between them. Specialization continues to be one of the most widely used ways of coping with an increasingly complex world. Facing a flood of knowledge and competing demands, many academics create narrow disciplinary or methodological niches for themselves. This survival mechanism works in an operational sense, but it does little to advance society’s ability to deal with its fundamental problems – which relate to complex problems occupying the interface of different disciplines and worldviews.

Address the foundation, not just the surface. Especially in the context of conservation problems and sustainability more generally, the vast majority of academic work scratches at the surface of the problems, and largely ignores foundational issues. The value and belief systems that underpin our culture and relationship with the environment deserve fundamentally more attention.

Value reflection, not only discovery. The largest dinosaur bone, a global meta-analysis, or the latest method to optimize a management decision: these are topics that are readily sold to leading journals, the media, and the public. Academia mirrors the rest of society in that it must function via exciting sound bites. What cannot be communicated in a few pages will have a small chance of being widely read. Reflection, which is a key prerequisite to develop a deep understanding of any issue, is increasingly lacking in leading academic literature.

Focus on understanding shades of grey, rather than perpetuating black and white debates. Science continues to be dominated by polarized debates, which are fuelled by simplistic conceptual models; a trend that is further enhanced by a perceived need for quantitative analyses focusing on binary questions (is there an effect of …?). Most applied questions worth asking have a context-dependent answer. The challenge typically does not lie in understanding whether black or white is the answer, but rather in refining which shade of grey is appropriate under which circumstances.

Strive for gentle and humble rather than tough and smart. At a personal level, tough and smart are attributes that help academics succeed in the often brutal machinery of academia. In very practical ways, these attributes help to get one’s work published and noticed, as well as obtain and retain faculty positions. But tough and smart often coincide with aggressive and arrogant – which stand in the way of achieving the cultural changes proposed above. At all levels of society, we need leadership that is gentle and humble to balance the tough and smart of which Western culture has produced no shortage.

Taken together, the cultural changes proposed above amount to a plea to take active steps to foster the development of wisdom within academia, rather than reward raw intellectual capacity that is marketed vigorously. An ever larger share of the decision regarding which science receives attention rests with the editors of journals, rather than peer reviewers, especially in leading journals. This position places a grave responsibility on editors which they must live up to. Top-tier journals should be brave enough to actively encourage a new culture of science – so that academia once again helps to lead society towards a better future rather than mirrors its deficiencies.

11 thoughts on “Why we need a new culture of Science

  1. Great thoughts, Joern! I’m not sure what you mean by ‘foundations’–I think I know and if so, I agree, but you could make it clearer with an example or more explanation. I’m not sure about gentle and humble *rather than* tough and smart. I like the idea of celebrating humility, I’m not sure that gentleness is going to be more helpful than toughness if we’re going to help navigate the transition to sustainable trajectories. The status quo is favoured by many, who seek to impede our efforts….

    • Thanks for the feedback, Kai. Indeed, this is a big challenge — how to ‘be heard’ with subtle messages, or via gentle behaviour, when the rest of the world is shouting. To be honest, I have no idea how to navigate this challenge, but I do think it is a key challenge that needs to be navigated — to ultimately move towards a more cooperative, gentler culture than we currently operate within.

  2. Nice article Joern, but your framing goes into the same binary oppisition of black white you argue against – e.g. cooperation vs. competition; foundation vs. surface, etc.

    I think it would be interesting to try and rewrite so it follows more of the your recommendations. I don’t think this is easy but it would be a neat challenge.

    I’m reviewing a book on metaphor in science (Metaphors for Environmental Sustainability: Redefining Our Relationship with Nature) that speaks to exactly this issue that maybe you also find interesting – especially since it focuses on invasive spp. He argues that often teh metaphors scientists use reinforce the system that they are trying to change, rather than supprot alternatives.

    • Interesting indeed. You’re quite right about the internal inconsistency you mention. I guess there is a point to what extent black-vs-white framing helps to conceptualise extremes; while still understanding that reality takes place in the shades of grey in between. Your more general point about metaphors might well be worth chasing up — thanks for the suggestion!

  3. Hola – very interesting post.
    I think that when a lot of resources (money and whatever one may need) are present, then the world is ok, people allow balancing and are more patient and collaborative. Not much to loose, since there are many resources.

    When resources are scarce then competition appear, no matter which form it takes (it can be very brutal but very well dressed to look ‘non competitive’ – but if we think deeply…this non-competitive looking can be itself a kind of successful competition:)) ).

    Big challange: how to be effective as academic with shadows of grey approach in a world which changes increasingly fast, resources are diminishing and competition is stronger and stronger.

    An other big challange: how to maintain moral integrity in these times when one know that with each proposal for funding or paper submission or submission of an application for postdoc, he is part of this game. A game which not always is governed by morality and ethical principles.

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  7. I enjoyed reading your thesis. I would argue that we are not only obsessed with material wealth but also with personal glory, which necessarily insists that we best our peers.

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