Diseases That Affect Modern Scientists

In 1898, Spanish scientist Santiago Ramon y Cajal published an essay titled Diseases of The Will, in which he described some virtual illness that hit 19th century scientists, turning them into “contemplators,” “bibliophiles,” “theorists,” and other caricatures. A little over a decade into the 21st century, a new group of diseases has emerged as threats to the progress of science. Three of them stand out: Productivity Addiction, Tenure Leisure, and Financial Anxiety.

Productivity Addiction affects early career scientists. Its main cause is the wide gap between the number of job offers in academia (few) and the number of PhDs that are thrown in the market every year (thousands). As a result of competition, young researchers find themselves hostages to academic publications, and research interests are determined less by the appeal of a topic than by what a journal with high impact factor wants. The main symptom of this disease is a Curriculum Vitae with five or more publications per year, either on a similar topic with largely overlapping content, or in widely different topics but solving a range of disparate problems without any clear line of research.

While Productivity Addiction can be chronic, some individuals are successfully treated by a procedure called Tenure. Tenure provides the researcher with job stability, so that he can be free to work on problems that are inherently interesting, regardless of funding or other factors. Unfortunately, the procedure can cause a severe side effect, known as Tenure Leisure. This disease manifests itself as a profound lack of interest for research: after years of too much hard work, the patient loses the drive required to pursue science. As in the previous disease, this one can also be diagnosed by close examination of the individual’s CV. One or less yearly publications after a decade of high productivity is a strong indicator of Tenure Leisure. Sadly, there is no cure.

The last important disease is more unpredictable in terms of onset: it can hit scientists from the early years of PhD until later on their careers, and in some cases even past retirement. It is manifested by the realization that life is too short, and that the universe’s puzzles are endless anyway. The so-called Financial Anxiety is triggered by the observation that there are other jobs which, intriguingly, do not require as much mental effort but pay much better. Upon infection, the illness is fatal to one’s contribution to science. Sadly, like Productivity Addiction, Financial Anxiety is very contagious.

Such diseases are not necessarily the scientists fault. Rather, they are a consequence of the times we live in. Young researchers who want to pursue a career in science, for instance, have little chance of escaping from Productivity Addiction.

(A version of this article appeared in Washington Square News.)

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