February 15, 2007

Ego, Thy Name is Scientist

You'd think that the hardest part of this job for someone with a humanities background would be having to assimilate, condense and translate information about theoretical nanophysics or chemisty or genome sequencing into engaging prose for the masses.

You'd be wrong.

It's the politics, and I don't mean that in the donkey/elephant sense of the word. See, the scientists are competing for grant money, and the development people are competing for alumni donations, so they want the scientists to get the grant money so they can say "Look at our cool research!" to the donors, and the deans want their colleges to be firstest with the mostest so that both streams of revenue keep a rollin' in, and the grand high muckety-mucks just want the national rankings to go up, because then you get better grad students and better research and--yep, more funding.

Now, if you're dealing with just one scientist working solo (or with a bunch of grad students, which is pretty much the same thing), this is not a problem. But introduce colleagues, either from other universities or, God forbid, the same department, and some of these folks can give Hollywood stars who demand top billing a run for their money. Here is a sample conversation I had with a college communicator/development type over some research that the media were actually asking for--a rarity, btw.

Me: "Okay, I've gotten 2 or 3 queries about Science Project X. Who's the official PI on the work, Aged Politico, or Young Upstart?"

Communicator: "Aged Politico."

Me: "He's not available. He's never available because he's too busy politicking."

Comm: "I know."

Me: "I'm going to give them the Upstart."

Comm: (Sigh.)

Me: "What?"

Comm: "It's complicated."

Me: "How is this complicated? They both know the research and can talk about it to media."

Comm: "Well, Politico thinks that Upstart is trying to take credit for work he didn't do."

Me: "But Politico didn't do it either, right? The actual WORK was done by Unappreciated Foreign Grad Flunkie."

Comm: "Sort of."

Me: "We can't do phoners on this one - they want video. Can the Flunkie speak on camera?"

Comm: (hysterical laughter)

Me: "Scratch that, then. Look, this research is a big deal and we've missed opportunities to let folks know about it before because of their infighting--I have a folder full of passive-aggressive email back-and-forths between these two--and can I remind you that this is big picture stuff here? Promoting the university, not individual scientists or departments?"

Comm: "You don't have to sell me."

Me: "So what will happen if I give them the Upstart."

Comm: "Politico will complain to the Department Head. Who actually hates Politico because of something Politico did to him long ago, and Politico knows this, and then Upstart will say that Politico is trying to undermine him and poach his students, and the whole thing will devolve."

Me: "The odds of the Dean telling these two to play nice?"

Comm: "About the same as you getting hit with a meteor in the next 2 minutes."

Me: "And thus we are all doomed to obscurity."

Comm: "Welcome to the university."

Posted by Big Arm Woman at February 15, 2007 10:00 AM | TrackBack

You've just reminded me in great detail one of the reasons why I left said institution. I saw this exact same scenario too many times to count.

Posted by: Locomotive Breath at February 15, 2007 10:04 AM

Studied incompetence is the secret to a happy scientific life.

Posted by: Ron Hardin at February 15, 2007 10:07 AM

Seems obvious to me that you just give them Upstart, and laugh up your sleeve at the resulting tsuris, but maybe I just don't appreciate how much your life gets harder personally as a result.

Posted by: Joshua Macy at February 15, 2007 10:57 AM

What happens if you tell A.P. "I need this video done next week. Give me a confirmed time and place or I will have to have Y.U. do it"? Or, say to both "I need the video done. Whoever can give me the earliest guaranteed time goes on camera"? It's jujitsu — make the reason A.P. doesn't get to do it the thing that causes you problems, so either he fixes it or you get to blame him.

I also avoided a career in academia because I saw too much of this as a graduate student.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at February 15, 2007 12:02 PM

Joshua -

Exactly. My life gets a lot harder. I've done what you suggested in the past, and the immediate result can best be described as "frantic ladder-climbing." I'm at the bottom of said ladder, and so I find other fish to fry. Although I do CC the Dean on all correspondence concerning the missed opportunity, so I'm not totally helpless.


Problem is when media calls you've got a 1 to 2 hour window, then they're out. There is no planning ahead here.

Posted by: BAW at February 15, 2007 01:24 PM

BAW - you ought to see the arguments over who goes where on the author's list. Usually, the first author is the grad student whos' going to put this work in his thesis, the last author is the advisor, and the middle authors are grad students or post-docs who either contributed some thought or ran samples in an instrument that the author does not know how to use (that last is how I becase a co-author on one of my wife's papers). But when two groups "collaborate" (I use that term very loosely in Academia), all that goes out the window and the games begin.

And while foerign grad student flunky may have done the work, there's a 50 / 50 chance he never would have thought of the idea without some prompting from the two profs, so they are not totally taking credit where it is not due. In my own particular case, my seminal paper was my own idea start to finish, and my advisor thought it would not work. On the other hand, I would not have had the idea if he had not been working in the area and drawm my attention to certain things.

Posted by: John at February 17, 2007 06:23 PM
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