Financial dependency, time and system constrains as innovation filters?

by Tibor Hartel

While drinking the morning coffee I read an interesting post in the science blog of The Guardian by Ehsan Masood. I paste here the last paragraph of that post:

‘Progress in science needs researchers who are not afraid – or who are encouraged and rewarded – to ask awkward and difficult questions of theory and of new data. It is easier to question mainstream views if you are independently wealthy, as many scientists in previous ages tended to be. But I wonder how many of us would do so if we were employed by the state and our career progression depended on the validation of our peers?’

Is this true for modern time ecology researchers? I would say a humble yes. For example, today the PhD students need to complete their dissertation in 3 years – and they work within funded projects (of 3-5 years). Is this enough time for reflection and synchronization with the ecological systems they study? To feel those systems before knowing them? To be inspired by the ecological systems?

I had officially 7 years to complete my PhD in Romania – in those times Romania made his own rules, which in this case were good:). My supervisor was Dr. Petru Banarescu – a really beautiful old man with blue eyes, a famous Romanian ichthyologist and biogeographer – the author of the highly cited ‘Zoogeography of Fresh Waters‘ (he wrote this without internet, Jstore and other facilities but in harsh communist times when he was even in jail for his political views…I guess sometimes is good to remember that it was not always like now). He always told: his teachers were the nature, the rivers and lakes. He was always happy when I showed him a paper of mine. But he was even more happy when I told him my intuitions ‘derived’ from the fieldwork. He valued my feelings. He never put any pressure on me to publish – I should publish when I am ready to do that. And never put any pressure on me about what to do and when. I had no plans because intuitions and wisdom don`t come planned. Like `next week, at 16.00 I will intuitively capture this and that’. The plan was rather broad: to produce a scientist who think, reflect, to discover his/her own skills, to form a researcher identity and know ecology. If it happens that s/he publish too – ok. He published a lot too. But it is different: when publications appear as a result of an increasing internal intellectual pressure or as a result of the outside pressure:). In the first case, Impact Factor and journal rank doesn’t matter. And the amount of papers doesn`t matter. Knowledge matters, wisdom matters, deepness matters. In the second case amount matters, the look matters and no matter if it is superficial. And we wonder why the science of today is so commercial and cheap… And why the aim is to publish and not to understand. And why is the academia obsessed with quantity and why academia loose its attractivity for many young researchers.  Foreign researchers working with ecologists from Romania may know: Romanian ecologists really know ecology, even if they don`t publish in high IF journals…  Dr. Banarescu was happy if I am confortable with what I do and…I had time. Time to try, to fail, to reflect. Langsam und sauber:) Dr. Banarescu was indeed very important in determining my way of thinking and value systems, and I am grateful to experience him in my life.

Modern ecology researchers at international level seem to be more model oriented and although they may be always happy to go in the field and experience natural systems, their ever complicating job (i.e. the models are more complex today than in the era of Eric Pianka…) may trap them more than needed and desired in the office. I feel this may consume a lot of valuable energy which could be allocated to more important things: to feel nature and people and reflect about them and turn the signals received from these systems into creative innovations.

At the end, I say (to those who see in the inhuman modern academic system something good) what Acad. Petru Banarescu would say probably: allow more space for nature and people to teach us.

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5 thoughts on “Financial dependency, time and system constrains as innovation filters?

  1. I think ‘revolutionary ideas’ still appear, as for example the possibility to extract DNA from soil and tell, for example, what was there some time ago (i.e. DNA metabarcoding). This recent discovery didn’t need complicated statistics. I find many articles with a lot of numerical stuff and almost without real ecological message, e.g. testing models based on simulated data. And I have to confess, I am really frustrated because I feel that I am not able to propose new statistical methods in order to publish papers. I would like to work only with ecology, but unfortunately, my paper dealing with forest openings (the topic of my PhD thesis) would not have been accepted without modelling. The three years in which I was supposed to finish forced me to publish, to learn statistical tools but I have to admit that they didn’t help me at all in understanding the ecological settings was I working in. It was only the intuition and not the planned study design.

    • It seems scientists are encouraged to pursue deductive methods (inherently incremental) until they are more established thinkers and inductive and more “reaching” or “revolutionary” thinking is acceptable.

      • Completely agreed, though I’d add that deduction also rules many of our largest journals, and increasingly so.

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