The Slow Science Movement
Today’s research environment pushes for the quick fix, but successful science needs time to think.
| Illustration by Robert Samuel Hanson.
There is a growing school of thought emerging out of Europe that urges university-based scientists to take careful stock of their lives – and to try to slow things down in their work.
According to the proponents of the budding “slow science” movement, the increasingly frenetic pace of academic life is threatening the quality of the science that researchers produce. As harried scientists struggle to churn out enough papers to impress funding agencies, and as they spend more and more of their time filling out forms and chasing after increasingly elusive grant money, they aren’t spending nearly enough time mulling over the big scientific questions that remain to be solved in their fields.
This slow science movement is patterned, to some extent, on the Slow Food movement, born in Italy in the 1980s. While slow food advocates try to steer us away from the empty pleasures of Big Macs and Doritos and towards the more nourishing embrace of homemade stews simmered for hours from local ingredients, slow science proponents regard many of the scientific papers being published today as the academic equivalent of fast food – they’re produced in a rush and they’re not particularly edifying.
Among those who have sounded the alarm is University of Nice anthropologist Joël Candau. “Fast science, like fast food, favours quantity over quality,” he wrote in an appeal he sent off to several colleagues in 2010. “Because the appraisers and other experts are always in a hurry too, our CVs are often solely evaluated by their length: how many publications, how many presentations, how many projects?” When Dr. Candau’s commentary was circulated online last year, more than 4,000 scientists signed it in support.
More recently, a group of German academics calling themselves the Slow Science Academy published their own attention-grabbing manifesto online. “Science needs time to think. Science needs time to read and time to fail,” the manifesto declared.
This past August, Jean-François Lutz, a research director at the Institut Charles Sadron in Strasbourg, published a commentary in the pages of Nature Chemistry in support of slow science. Pointing to Charles Goodyear’s introduction of vulcanized rubber in 1844, Dr. Lutz noted that this discovery came about only after Goodyear had spent more than a decade on the project, pursuing several false starts. He doubted that contemporary scientists could devote so much time to a single goal. “In fact,” wrote Dr. Lutz, “it seems more and more obvious that 21st-century scientists do not have anything close to the amount of free time that would be necessary to read all of the literature in their field of research, even in very specialized areas.”
According to Thomas Schlich, McGill University’s Canada Research Chair in History of Medicine, slow science represents something of a backlash against recent changes to the way in which academic research is funded in Europe. Dr. Schlich, who grew up in Germany and spent the early part of his academic career there, says that European governments and granting agencies are embracing the North American model for funding researchers. The result, says Dr. Schlich, is increased competition for grants that cover shorter periods of time. Scientists in Europe are also facing more pressure to justify their work, but, as Dr. Candau pointed out, the way in which they are evaluated leaves much to be desired.
According to Dr. Schlich, these changes to research funding and evaluation have been particularly grating for German scientists, who have historically pursued their work with a large measure of autonomy. “This [autonomy] was seen as a recipe for success for German science.” For instance, he says, Germany was at the forefront of physiological discoveries in the late 19th century, a period when “experimental physiologists were given labs and lots of money and scientists felt free to pursue whatever they wanted.”
That certainly isn’t the research environment that European scientists – particularly young scientists – find themselves in today, says Ruth Müller, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Austrian Institute for International Affairs, where she heads the Science and Technology Policy Group. She helped organize an international workshop devoted to slow science in 2010.
Her interest in slow science stems in part from the research she did for her PhD at the University of Vienna. It focused on the career aspirations and working practices of postdoctoral research fellows in the life sciences. “It’s a complicated moment in their careers and they find themselves in a bottleneck, competing for the few senior positions that are available,” says Dr. Müller.
“They often end up in a loop of doing one postdoc after another. It all becomes about outpacing [their peers] and producing output” in order to impress hiring committees and funding agencies with publication numbers and impact factors. As a consequence, she says, “there is no time to develop other skills. How to teach, how to communicate your research to the public – these things get pushed to the margins.”
She says the trend is causing “collateral damage” to the culture of science. “Young researchers aren’t rewarded for activities that are essential to the running of an effective lab – fostering teamwork, for instance, or helping newcomers get acclimatized.”
Many of the concerns expressed by slow science proponents in Europe resonate with their academic peers in Canada. Françoise Baylis, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Bioethics and Philosophy at Dalhousie University, concurs with the Slow Science Academy’s view that “science develops unsteadily, with jerky moves and unpredictable leaps forward.”
Dr. Baylis believes the Canadian government is pushing science in a very different direction, one that emphasizes university-based research that offers potential commercial benefits. She notes that the National Research Council of Canada will now focus more of its efforts on the commercialization of science and that the original Networks of Centres of Excellence have been followed by more business-oriented initiatives like the Centres of Excellence for Commercialization and Research.
“All long-term complex research, especially interdisciplinary research, that does not aim to produce widgits is at risk,” says Dr. Baylis. “The problem is the government’s pervasive focus on ‘deliverables.’”
Benoit-Antoine Bacon, the dean of arts and science at Bishop’s University, says that slow science proponents have raised some legitimate concerns. “Few would dispute that the way funding is allocated has put a premium on the number of publications,” says Dr. Bacon, a neuropsychologist, “if only because evaluating the quantity of publications is significantly easier than evaluating their quality.”
Some advocates of the slow science movement argue that evaluation based on numbers leads researchers to dampen their ambitions: scientists play it safe and choose simpler projects to pursue, ones that will generate papers without too much fuss, rather than risk years on a tough problem that might not pan out.
Dr. Bacon believes the situation is more complex than that. “I see more and more scientists resolving the issue by having a two-speed research program: a safer and more productive research program that will guarantee the renewal of their research funding, and in parallel, a slower, more thoughtful, quality-focused approach where they can do their best work over long periods of time.”
McGill University’s dean of science, Martin Grant, agrees. “Any thinking scientist has to have a [mix of projects]. Some … will have a reasonable chance of working out and some will be long shots.” Dr. Grant believes that young assistant professors do want their research to have an impact, but they understand the game: they do what they need to do to get their careers established but also keep their eye on the long-term. Increasingly, they’re interested in problems like climate change or the functioning of the brain that require an interdisciplinary approach to solve them, he says. “They’re looking for major problems where they believe they’ll have a realistic chance of making a significant contribution.”
But all in all, it’s hard to disagree that the slow science movement makes some important points in today’s research-funding climate. Bishop’s dean, Dr. Bacon, observes: “I think it’s safe to say that the demands on university researchers are higher than ever, and that time for contemplation has become quite rare indeed.”
Daniel McCabe is editor of McGill University’s alumni magazine, McGill News.
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