Wagging the dog in academia

It's been a couple of months since I posted here, partly because of holiday, partly work, and partly because what spare time I've had has been spent voraciously following the economic and political conversations that the suprisingly interesting Labour leadership election campaign has raised.

I suspect I'll spew my thoughts on the latter topic, and the general state we're in, at a not-much-later date. But today an easier task: a few thoughts on a residential "creativity" course that I did over the last couple of days.

All in all it wasn't bad. My thought on this sort of thing is that although many things that the University promote to us sound like the worst kind of management guff, there is often a kernel of useful content. Getting it might require a trade-off, i.e. sitting through 8 hours of infuriating nonsense to get the benefit of 5 mins of mild insight, but taking the occasional risk is, I think, preferable to decrying well-meaning "personal development" forever, and maybe missing out on something useful. As it happens, I had attended an "Effective Communication" course just a month ago, which was well worth the morning that I spent on it. Sometimes I even surprise my cynical self.

Two days residential course is a lot more than a morning, of course, but it was an easy call to make when I realised that this course would count as a more enjoyable version of the mandatory "Entrepreneurship" course that I need to attend. The first day had its good moments, but suffered -- or rather I suffered -- from endless hours of repeating the truism that creativity is in practice always about inventive, revealing combinations of existing things, rather than somehow popping 100% new ideas, based on not an iota of pre-existing knowledge, out of the vacuum. It's a reasonable point, and helpful for some, but is like an unconstructive mathematical proof: sure, that's true, but it has nothing to say about either what combinations are interesting, nor how to bias ourselves toward finding them. Day 2 was a bit better, with a nice exercise on a "toy model" topic... apparently we need to pay the training consultant more to get the "proper" course that works on real situations. Oh well. There's more to come, and I don't regret the two days of attempted self-improvement.

One of the things that struck me, among all the "unlearning" and challenging of preconceptions, was that every time my colleagues (in the broad sense -- I was the only physicist in the room) were given the opportunity to ask a free-form question, it was about grant applications, reviews, publications, and all the other paraphenalia of academic life. This isn't really surprising on the face of it, but the form of the questions caught me by surprise: there was rarely a sense of perspective, or awareness that there is value in many of the things that we do regardless of whether they lead to grants or publications. It was implicit that the only thing that matters is those superficial aspects of academic -- the cargo cult stuff -- that performance reviews and promotion metrics focus on. There was even a repeated question along the lines of "Shouldn't I just leave creativity for later, since I think grant reviewers want to see safe proposals at this stage". Very sad.

The question I ended up asking is "Why am I not equally myopic?" or more self-critically, "What do they know that I don't?". One part of the answer really is personal. My career hasn't had a very standard trajectory for a HEP experimentalist -- post-PhD I took 4 years "out" of experiment to work among theorists, in an environment where I was essentially my own boss for 90% of the time, and had great support from the likes of Jon Butterworth. This gave me a lot of freedom to establish a value system that was all about the science quality rather than the cargo-cult trappings of academia -- which of course I am framing to you as being the One True Way. And my natural inclination is anyway that rocking boats are more interesting than the plain sailing type. But while there are certainly plenty of experimental HEP'ers whose primary focus is strategic moves for rapid career progression -- conventionally followed by endless moaning about the unfairness of all the teaching and admin that they couldn't wait to inflict upon themselves -- I think on the whole our peculiar type of science protects us from the worst effects of modern academia's performance metrics on at least two fronts.

First up is the meaninglessness of citation counts in experimental HEP. In this strange world where one need only qualify as an ATLAS author once, and never again be asked to do any service (or indeed any) work to justify the constant flow of papers with your name on it, publication measures like raw citation counts, paper counts, or h-indices mean virtually nothing. Their strongest correlation is with longevity in the field, and in particular longevity on major running experiments. While this gives some advantage to those who spent the 2000s on running Tevatron experiments rather than in-development LHC ones, I think the main effect is a sort of scroll-blindness: everyone's numbers are so large and so similar that there is no power of differentiation. And when it comes to exercises like the REF, pretty much every UK HEP group points at the same major papers and has a half-decent case for doing so. Having filled our CVs up to the brim with collective publications, there is actually remarkable freedom on the resulting Fermi surface for us to focus on what we find interesting, without needing to daily obsess about The Paper. I'm also thoroughly looking forward to the demise of that outdated, cargo-cultish mode of academic communication -- and wealth transfer to Elsevier -- but that's for another day.

The second point in our favour is STFC's group consolidated grants, which are necessary for functional operation of very large projects over decades, as opposed to the 1 or 2 year peripatetic funding that is the norm elsewhere. Again there is individual freedom to be found in collectivism (christ, this is going to start reading like Maoist propaganda any minute now) -- most of us need not be overly concerned with grant chasing, particularly as there really aren't that many of them to chase. One poor biochemist I talked to said he'd put in 25 grant applications in the last 2 years -- I'm pretty sure there aren't even close to that many funding calls in total in UK/EU particle physics over that timescale. I can imagine that if your life becomes that dominated by application writing, then just like the people in the Bill Hicks skit you start to forget that it's just a ride. You forget that the reason you do this is not really the funding, or the promotion, or any of that crap, but the satisfaction of a job well done and of increasing our collective knowledge and wisdom.

Particle physics isn't a panacea, of course -- there is still deep unfairness over the number of excellent postdocs that we train, overwork, and then fail to provide permanent places for. And our huge collaborations have brought new modes of careerist gaming, and perverse incentives to do bad or at least substandard science. Grants are still chased, albeit with more emphasis on personal fellowships than project funding; and to my colleagues I'm sure I sound like a broken record when criticising their daily attendance of interminable ATLAS videoconference meetings* -- the motivation for which is something like "Jesus is coming; look busy" in the belief that being sub-co-coordinator of the Paper Clips Working Group is going to have some positive career impact. But despite all that, I think we've been strangely blessed by the administrative implications of our supersized science: a sort of academic asymptotic freedom. Long may it last.

[*] I'll maybe also moan about the appaling quality of ATLAS meetings at a later date. I'm just going to say here and now that I stopped attending them about 2 years ago, unless I specifically have a horse in that race. I've yet to notice any adverse impact, and I have a lot more headspace for physics thinking. Try it.


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