January 21, 2010

Building on success

One of the other things I've been musing about since the Big National Conference is just how much feedback there is in My Science: in order for people to take you seriously, they have to know your name already, and once you're Somebody it is much easier to get the research funding and data access you need to do more good work. I don't assume that people have heard of me, with my mighty five (I think) publications in my old-school subfield, but I am trying to raise my profile by moving into sexier adjacent subfields, and by going to meetings and talking about my projects to try to make an in-person impression.

I have a good friend who is already On His Way. E is tremendously dedicated and creative, and also lucky to have thought up a timely and clever project with a well-known and socially adept advisor. He's a good speaker, the right people think well of him, and he just landed a highly respected research job. I'm glad he caught that wave, and hope he stays on it: he'll be great.

We have conceptual feedback as well, of course - research scientists tend to think of ourselves as meritocrats, respecting well-done and convincing work, and if Theory A was well-done and convincing, why should we entertain the possibility of Theory B? There's some ego acting here too: we couldn't have believed the wrong explanation for so long!

These are both deeply human tendencies, and will always play some role in the human scientific community. They can be mitigated with attention, and that's probably good: this article was eye-opening for me (in that makes-you-want-to-hide-under-the-bed kind of way). The effort to be fairer is both individual and institutional (or at least that's how I was thinking about it yesterday), and I think that the effort to be more flexible is mainly cultural. It's our job to not know all the answers, to keep thinking up questions we haven't solved yet, but it is hard to maintain a let's-see-what-happens attitude in a be-right-or-else environment.

On the advice of a total stranger on the Internet (what could go wrong?), I'm making up a new resolution for every month of the year rather than trying to do one thing all year. January's is to be a little easier on myself, to be less harsh a critic, and I see an opportunity for a corollary resolution here: I'm going to give more of a chance to papers whose authors I've never heard of, and I will try to see it as a sign of inquiry, not cluelessness, when people consider alternative explanations and make themselves persuadable.

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