Why are academics so risk averse?

Each week, Symposium Magazine provides a blogging forum for the week’s featured article. Today, the subject of Euny Hong’s piece, Ethan Perlstein, writes about some of the responses to date.I was delighted to see the issue of independent science get attention last week on Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish and by political scientist Jay Ulfelder. But let me respond to several points, especially those made by Ulfelder on his blog, Dart-Throwing Chimp.

I jokingly refer to the status quo as The Tenure Games. It’s a riveting tale of hyper-competition, meritocracy qualified by tribalism, and an academic hiring Ponzi scheme that’s resulting in an excess of scientific human capital. Oh, and the average age at which life scientists reach independence – if you define that as getting funding from the NIH Research Project Grant Program — is now 43.

I freely admit that going independent has tremendous risks. But when did academics as a whole become so personally risk averse? I find it ironic, because most scientists tend to be quite daring in their research.

And to be clear, I was not strolling the grounds of my family estate on a pheasant hunt when the idea to go independent came to me in a musket flash. Like others of the “postdocalypse” generation, I’m reacting and adapting to a crumbling system. And don’t just take my word for it. There are respected voices in “NIH Land” with decades of perspective who are willing to call a spade a spade.

And, yes, the risk becomes easier to stomach if you have savings, but people also go into debt to fund their dreams and bootstrap with a few clients. Granted, many of them fail, but then some get right back up and try again. Is that Nature or Nurture? I don’t know, but there is indisputable variation from person to person.

I understand that the risk calculus involves more than just dollar amounts, and I understand that academic trainees are underpaid for over a decade, a debilitating opportunity cost that exacerbates personal risk. Factors such as kids, a mortgage, or parents in need of care conspire against entrepreneurial risk-taking every day.

I don’t pretend that every academic will be able or will want to transition to independent status, but there are no arguments that what the scientist Casey Ydenberg calls the “brilliant grantsmith” monoculture of academia is on its last legs. I’m doing my part to restore polyculture.

As far as other fields go, I can’t speak for them. To be sure, the social sciences are not pharmacology in that as there has not yet been a Breaking Bad episode featuring a cancer-stricken sociologist doing renegade DEA policy research. But I’m bullish on charitable science crowdfunding on the fundamentals even though we are in fact in a crowdfunding bubble. And I’ll talk more about that tomorrow.

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