Monday, June 17, 2013

Scientists leaving the academy: Pushed, or pulled?

Several of my friends have shared and commented on this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education: "On Leaving Academe."  The author is Terran Lane, a former computer science professor at the University of New Mexico.

The article starts with the (shocking!) revelation that he is leaving his position as a professor to work for Google.  Lane then lists nine reasons for leaving:

  1. Making a difference
  2. Work-life imbalance
  3. Centralization of authority and decrease of autonomy
  4. Budget climate
  5. Hyperspecialization, insularity, and narrowness of vision
  6. Poor incentives
  7. Mass production of education
  8. Salaries
  9. Anti-intellectualism, anti-education, and attacks on science and academe

The tone is of the article is very negative.  Lane frames most of his complaints as forces that are pushing him out of the University. Honestly, it feels a little bit bitter.

As I've discussed this with friends, I've decided that I disagree with the tone, if not the reasons.  I've also made a similar decision to -- temporarily, at least -- leave the academy for the private sector.  But I see the whole experience in a much more positive light.

As I see it, there are growing incentives to find applications for science outside the academy. Since I've got into the startup world, I've met lots of psychologists, economists, and even the occasional political scientist who are building consumer-facing tools based on well-founded theories of social science.

To me, this feels like an emerging renaissance in applied social science. In other words, it's not just the case that smart, ambitious people are being pushed out of academia; they're being pulled out as well.

In the past, most careers paths allowed you to seek the truth OR change the world, but not both.  I'm optimistic that the rising volume and value of data is going to give more scientifically-minded people the chance to have their cake and analyze it too.  Eliminating artificial distinctions between "thinkers" and "doers" is good for society overall.

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