A proactive approach could help researchers contribute to solving many of the problems they encounter in academia
Naturejobs journalism competition winner Jiska van der Reest
There is no shortage of academic criticism in academia. Ask any scientist for the problem with academia and they’ll set off on a spirited speech outlining the various causes of #AcademicPain. With so many doctors diagnosing the diseases plaguing our line of work, when can we expect a cure?
Mental health issues among PhD students, workplace diversity, research reproducibility, and publishing have all been branded crises that are plaguing academia. We are making progress in acknowledging these concerns, but many still protest that too little is being done. But who do we expect to fix our system, if not ourselves? The step from complaint to action is a leap too large for many. We fear that one critical voice alone is unlikely to be heard; senior management does not listen; time spent away from research is wasted; voicing criticism of the very system we operate in will come at a personal cost. We are not politicians, policy makers, or strategic developers. Can we be?
I’d argue that scientists actually possess all the critical skills necessary to fix our field. We diagnose problems and suggest solutions with research proposals. We bring together strategic partners in our collaborations. We design strategies and protocols. We experiment with new ideas. With papers, we formulate and share evidence-based solutions. And we spend much of our working life rallying others to get behind our ideas. This approach achieves scientific progress – it may be able to drive progress in academia, too.
In response to a lack of transferable skills training opportunities in our institute, a colleague and I founded a student retreat with workshops tailored to our students’ needs. In the process, we racked up experience in grant writing, event organisation, and got to know strategic figures within the university – on top of enjoying the actual event. Just like in our daily research, the organisation required team work, project management, and drive. These research skills can be directed to any cause we feel passionate about. Whether you’re frustrated by the lack of diversity in science or the carbon footprint of your institute: initiate an advocacy working group, diagnose the problem, and develop a treatment plan.
I’ve been surprised at how easily issues in organisations can be addressed after offering practical, realistic, and mutually beneficial alternatives. Small initiatives may achieve meaningful change in a local environment, but by scaling up smaller steps we can also try to tackle bigger challenges in the wider field. The reproducibility crisis, inadequacies in the peer review system, and flaws in publishing are huge issues that stretch throughout science. It may seem impossible to address them locally, but new initiatives and movements always start as small sparks before igniting change.
Such advocacy is especially valuable for early career researchers as they provide experience, transferable skills, and networks. Given that academics spend much of their time seeking funding, gathering financial support for initiatives is an excellent skill-building activity. Rather than funds, many initiatives just require resources such as creative thinking and focused organisation. A lack of mentorship and career support is a much-discussed issue in science. To address this in our student community, we set up a peer mentoring system, an annual Welcome Night for new students, and a monthly PhD forum. Scaling up, as part of a cross-disciplinary team of students, we launched a Researcher Development Blog for our entire university, providing practical advice and support on issues pertaining to PhD life. To our delight, many of the issues we raised were taken on board by the strategic offices at the university and addressed. Requiring very little capital investment, these initiatives offered excellent returns.
It is often said that senior management is resistant to change and does not welcome bottom-up initiatives. But I found that grassroots initiatives that present positive ideas and emphasise how objectives link with the strategic goals of an organisation are often welcomed and supported. I’m sure I’m seen as a trouble maker at times, but I find the world forgives and forgets easily once you turn your criticism into positive change. We are not powerless to the inner workings of academia: if you’re in the system, you are the system. And as long as the appropriate pressures are applied, any system can move.
Jiska van der Reest is a PhD student at the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute in Glasgow, researching Cancer Cell Metabolism. She loves being a scientist, but is also fascinated by how academia works and the role of science in policymaking and politics.