The myth of scientific excellence

As a researcher in Spain, I face some very challenging odds if I want to be a researcher in this country. That’s a question of numbers, and the consequence of some terrible cumulative decisisions on science policy.

Funnily enough, I often see this kind of statements in job adverts, governmental statementsand such where we are sold that X place searches “excellent” researchers, or is a hub of “excellence”. The implications are clear: only the best of the best in our society are scientists, the brightest minds.

I don’t think that is the case.

As most people in academic Twitter will tell you, scientists are regular people who are just paid to do stuff they like. Yes, that implies a set of specific skills that not everyone has, but scientists are built, not born. I know many bright people that have left academia out of lack of opportunities, not lack of talent. The same is applied to lots of people I know that would make for terrific researchers if only they were given the opportunity or were in the right circumstances (usually, educative and economic, which are arguably the same in many cases). So what’s excellence, then?

Gatekeeping

Excellence is code for gatekeeping, plain and simple. On the minds of certain people, since scientists are born and destined to thrive no matter what, there seems to be an amount of people who are ‘fake’ academics and just occupy positions and not produce research. This is actually not so far for reality in endogamic environments, were positions are selected in internal, usually rigged comitees. The ‘excellence’ solution claims that cutting funds to let only the best of the best to stay will prune out the ‘unproductive’ academics and leave only the best of the best. That is very much not the case.

What happens when you select for excellence?

What you are selecting for is resilience and productivity. Resilience can mean either ‘I can sustain economically a situation of precarity for a while until something comes’, either by taking on other work, by getting internal scraps of bread (the classic ‘there is a small grant for you’ case) or by having some other means (savings, family support). None of these cases mean that the person in that situation is more competent that their peers.

As for productivity, that wouldn’t sound that bad if it weren’t for the current measures of productivity in academia: mostly, publications. We all know how much of a grind academia is, and how much a slow science approach is much needed, so I won’t dwelve on that. Productivity also means overextending oneself - taking extra teaching duties to make ends meet, for example. This kind of attitude is pervasive in academia even in relatively well-funded positions.

Science needs funding and estability, not ‘excellence’

Excellence, real excellence, can only flourish in a nurturing environment. Scientists are already highly motivated workforce - you don’t need to cut fundings to force them to work. If you hear that an institute is trying to generate ‘excellence’, beware. It might not mean what they think it means.