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: recommercialize.ca. @kellyjholloway.