Maybe I’m getting old, but after reflecting on the recent uprising of Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competitions across the world and the accompanying bravado, I feel that we are drifting far away from the core components of academic training.
Started in 2006 at the University of Queensland, the 3MT idea is very simple. You get up and explain your research in three minutes and you get judged on communication style, audience comprehension, and engagement. Yes, that’s right, there is no criterion based on what you are actually researching nor the quality of it. These competitions trivialize the research and demean the researcher rather than celebrating the excellent work that can be produced at our universities independent of stage performance.
I feel this way for several reasons that I will try to outline here:
Trivializing, not simplifying
Just as X-Factor and American Idol have been criticised for killing music, the 3MT competition trivializes the research in favour of the presentation style. It doesn’t stop here, as it seems that many facets of academia are headed in this direction including the perfection of grantsmanship vs. actually doing difficult research.
Moreover, Russell Smith wrote a great column on 3MT in the Globe and Mail last year entitled “Complex ideas can’t always be made simple” which highlights the lack of humanities and social science presentations making it to the final. I have to agree, further noting that science-based presentations will often have a wow factor (big machine, small robots, etc) that unfairly push them ahead.
Also, it seems from watching a few of the winning presentations (e.g. UBC’s recent competition) that much of the content is derived from the lab group’s research (often spanning decades) rather than the contribution of the individual making the presentation. This is a direct function of not having sufficient time to introduce a topic and show how your own research advanced things – it makes me wonder if the same could not be achieved by hiring a PR specialist for a lab, but at the salary of a PhD student.
Communication vs. Performance
Of course there is an argument to be made for better communication of scientific concepts to the public – I am a longtime supporter and contributor to such efforts – but is a reality TV-like setting the best way to achieve this? Do we really need to give PhD students yet another distraction from their research projects?
Recognition in academia has long been gained through publications in peer-reviewed journals or books as this requires people with expert knowledge to judge the quality of the research. My personal bias of how best to communicate science to the public therefore leans much more strongly toward RSAnimate (which takes excellent academic lectures and enriches them with illustrations) or TED talks (which gives the stage to already established leaders in the field).
Let’s not simply hunt for the best performers and then find some science for them to do.
My research is really great – just believe me
One of the best ways of convincing someone is to really believe what you’re saying by speaking with conviction. However, if you were to ask me to name the best qualities of an academic, at the top of my list would be their reluctance to believe, i.e.: their skepticism. “Believing” in your results – rather than definitively proving them – is the starting point for cutting corners and propping up work that is based on faulty assumptions.
The big worry that I have about 3MT is that it encourages the best performers rather than the best researchers to continue their careers. I’ll be very interested to follow the careers of this first round of winners – how many will stay in academia? how many will get ahead based on their prize? Only time will tell… for now I remain deeply suspect, and will go take a nap in my rocking chair.