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The trouble with the entrepreneurial mindset

By DAVID KENT | February 24, 2014

Editors Note: The Black Hole team is delighted to have guest blogger Dr. Kelly Holloway share her thoughts on the recent Canadian Science Policy Conference and the dangers of pushing researchers toward an entrepreneurial mindset. Her research group focuses on this issue and others and their website is listed below.

The November 2013 meeting of the Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC) brought together hundreds of members of the private sector, government and academia to discuss new directions for a Canadian “innovation-based” economy. One mission of the conference, in its fifth iteration, is to mentor future science and innovation policy thinkers. Many of the panelists featured in a series of sessions aimed at early career scientists argued that emerging scientists need to be entrepreneurs; most PhDs will not get academic jobs, so they need to get better at courting the private sector.

As a conference participant I was not surprised by that message. It has been the prevailing theme at career-development sessions, in government reports and in the mainstream media. I am a postdoctoral researcher studying the commercialization of academic science, so I was particularly interested in the string of CSPC conference sessions aimed at the newbies in the crowd, with titles like “Is a PhD Really a Waste of Time?”; “From Pipeline to Network: Rethinking Graduate Training to Embrace Diversity and Promote Innovation” and “Student Entrepreneurs as a Knowledge Vehicle.” I found myself in rooms full of youngish-looking scientists anxiously awaiting answers, hoping for a “no,” that their PhD was not a waste of time. It turns out it isn’t. Not completely.

There were prevailing themes to these sessions, which their titles portend.

Theme 1: Few of you will get academic jobs, so suck it up and move on.
Okay no one actually said, “suck it up,” but one panelist, Ron Freedman of Impact Group did say that the number of people who will get a job as an academic is diminishingly small, “so just live with that.”

This argument is bolstered by reports with grim predictions for PhDs and postdoctoral researchers. According to figures from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, the number of tenure track positions held by individuals under the age of 35 decreased from 35% in 1980 to 12% in 2005. At the same time, in the past 10 years the country has doubled the number of PhDs enrolled.

I enter panic mode when I hear these numbers, as my many years of graduate school suddenly appear entirely futile. But I can’t help turn to that very training I have acquired as a social scientist to question how these figures are put to us – as entrepreneurial peer pressure. The dearth of plum faculty positions is repeated consistently, a fixed and unavoidable fact – one which has come from nowhere and cannot be changed. In fact, it is the direct result of a transformation in higher education taking place over the past 30 plus years involving federal and provincial strategies that place more emphasis on private funding for research, provide fewer resources to support tenure-stream jobs, and offload enormous teaching responsibilities to contract faculty that have no job security, few benefits and, in most cases, ridiculously low pay.

This shift has been referred to as “corporatization” or “commercialization,” and subjected to ample criticism (Chan and Fisher 2009, Newson and Polster 2010, Slaughter and Rhoades 2004, Turk 2000, 2008). But those historical transformations of the university did not enter into the CSPC discussions of the dilemma, put to emerging researchers as something they just have to live with.

Theme 2: Be an entrepreneur. Learn soft business skills.
Panelists consistently lamented the lack of what they called “soft skills” amongst graduate students and postdocs in the sciences: Leadership, communication, administration, creativity and interpersonal ability. For example, Nana Lee, coordinator for graduate professional development at the University of Toronto, claimed she can help PhDs communicate, manage their time, learn entrepreneurial skills, understand and apply ethical practices, and work effectively in teams and as leaders. The message is a little patronizing. Do graduate students not have experience working in teams (i.e., the laboratory?), planning and managing their time (i.e., researching, teaching, publishing, participating in departmental governance, conferencing, etc.), understanding and applying ethical practices (i.e., doing research and filling out grant applications)?

They may be lacking “entrepreneurial skills,” but PhDs aren’t training to be entrepreneurs. They are training to do high quality scientific research.

Theme 3: Don’t feel constrained by the expectations of academia.
A session called “Student Entrepreneurs as a Knowledge Vehicle” explored how to break down the divide between academia and the private sector by introducing the “entrepreneurial mindset.” Panelists argued universities must transform the “culture” of academia to be friendlier to the private sector and create better infrastructure in the academy to train emerging scientists in business skills. These speakers ignored differences in values, norms and ethics in the academic world and the business world. In the academic world, some scientists place a high value things like open access, peer review, academic freedom, science for the public good and ethics. In the business/industrial world, profit is the bottom line.

There are certainly excellent and well-meaning scientists working for this sector, but this does not mitigate the profit motive. When research is aimed at producing profit for a company’s shareholders, the quality of the research is by definition not the top priority. There are enough examples of research “mishaps” from the pharmaceutical industry to warrant concern. In this context, it is noteworthy that CSPC panelist Thomas Corr, CEO of Canada’s flagship model for university-industry research partnerships, the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE), stressed that the OCE’s involvement is guided more by economic considerations than the quality of the research.

There is a dangerous trajectory at play here – a science policy direction that undermines the importance of science in the public interest, or even science for the sake of knowledge – that values economic considerations over quality. Campaigns like Get Science Right have started to document the kinds of research that are not going to fare well in this economy, painting a bleak picture for the future if things do not change.

Kelly Holloway recently received her PhD in sociology from York University. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher at Dalhousie University, studying emerging health research and the commercialization of academic science – for more information about the project see: @kellyjholloway.

David Kent
David Kent is a group leader at the University of Cambridge in the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute. His laboratory's research focuses on fate choice in single blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David is currently the Stem Cell Institute’s Public Engagement Champion and has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. Philip Beer / February 26, 2014 at 3:29 am

    Some alternative thoughts from a UK-Canada trained laboratory scientist.

    Theme 1. The number of academic scientists expanded considerably over the second half of the 20th century. Many of us think there are just too many scientists in the world, yet we continue to pump out PhDs. In addition, the ‘I can’t think what to do, so I’ll do a PhD’ mentality can be found both sides of the pond. Yes, graduate school for many will be a waste of time. A better approach may be to give people a realistic view of academia and other career options before they start, rather than worrying what should be done when they finish.

    Theme 2. The thought of learning entrepreneurial skills is bound to grate with academics. However, science is responsible for maintaining low standards in basic work ethics, resulting in labs full of people who are ill-prepared to interact with the wider community. All to often conference sessions comprising abstract-selected speakers (who will mainly comprise PhDs and post-docs) are marred by poor communication, speaking and presentation skills. The failure of many institutions to accept the need for basic work-place standards (punctuality, reliability, communication etc.) leaves trainees at a disadvantage in science, and ill-prepared for the non-academic world.

    Theme 3. The majority of biomedical research produced from academic labs and published in high-end journals cannot be independently reproduced (Arrowsmith 2011, Begley 2012 & 2013, Prinz 2011). Whilst scientists may indeed be high-minded in their ethics, this is somewhat irrelevant if their output is of no utility. And whilst profit may be the bottom line in industry, the majority of companies arrive at this point by developing a product that does what it says on the packet. Science could learn much from industry, in both addressing the current (largely unacknowledged) epidemic of unreproducible research, and in providing training for students that will leave them better equipped to succeed in their own as well as wider fields of employment.

  2. Lokis / February 26, 2014 at 2:17 pm

    what to me is worse remains the incredible panoply of political and MSM protection for any analysis of the AGW myth – we have global concerns that are real – like the Fuku Flu and we end up arguing some petty points about entrepreneurs.

  3. Sonja B / February 27, 2014 at 3:12 am

    PhD student in Canada chiming in with some additional thoughts.

    Theme 1: My sense is that most people of the “you won’t find an academic job so suck it up and move on” mentality are trying to find individual solutions to a systemic problem. It’s worth taking a broader look at the economic and social forces at play here. First, young people have been told for decades that higher education was key to getting a stable job with decent pay and benefits, and since a BSc is practically the new high school diploma*, the decision to pursue a PhD for many people arises out of economic necessity (rather than not having thought enough about what to do next). Second, most people who have risen to positions of leadership in the current system are heavily invested in maintaining the status quo, as abundant and inexpensive PhD and postdoc labour is what keeps labs afloat and productive. For this reason, I think it’s unlikely that we’ll see many PIs discouraging bright people from becoming graduate students.

    All this to say I think it’s important to consider some of the larger forces at play leading to the so-called “overproduction” of PhDs who can’t find jobs in academic science, rather than chalking the phenomenon up to a lack of individual responsibility/initiative, as is so often implied in these discussions.

    Theme 2: When people talk about graduate students’ lack of ‘soft’ skills, I get the sense they are mostly talking about the lack of ability or resolve to sacrifice intellectual honesty in favour of selling a product. While true, this can hardly be considered a deficiency of academia.

    Theme 3: In academic science, the motivation for publishing at any cost is usually individual careerism. In industry, the motivation is amplified through large teams of people under pressure to generate profit for economically and politically powerful corporations. It’s hard to imagine that the latter wouldn’t be more corrupt. And examples of lack of integrity within industry-sponsored research abound, including the selective publication of positive outcomes from clinical trials (e.g. Song et al, HTA 2010). I agree that academic biomedical research could use an ethics overhaul, but taking cues from industry in this area is probably not the optimal approach.

    *See: Global Warming hits Science Trainees – the average CV rises two degrees,

  4. Donald Forsdyke / February 27, 2014 at 9:58 am

    Yes, that is why we created “Canadians for Responsible Research Funding” (CARRF) in the 1990s. Impact zero! But keep up the good work David. And why not join us?

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