Higgs and No Slack in the System

Peter Higgs, of the Higgs boson and Nobel Prize recipient, recently had this to say about the state of science (boldface mine):

Peter Higgs, the British physicist who gave his name to the Higgs boson, believes no university would employ him in today’s academic system because he would not be considered “productive” enough…

He doubts that a similar breakthrough could be achieved in today’s academic culture, because of the expectations on academics to collaborate and keep churning out papers. He said: “It’s difficult to imagine how I would ever have enough peace and quiet in the present sort of climate to do what I did in 1964.”

Speaking to the Guardian en route to Stockholm to receive the 2013 Nobel prize for science, Higgs, 84, said he would almost certainly have been sacked had he not been nominated for the Nobel in 1980.

Edinburgh university’s authorities then took the view, he later learned, that he “might get a Nobel prize – and if he doesn’t we can always get rid of him”.

Higgs said he became “an embarrassment to the department when they did research assessment exercises”. A message would go around the department saying: “Please give a list of your recent publications.” Higgs said: “I would send back a statement: ‘None.’”

…He added: “Today I wouldn’t get an academic job. It’s as simple as that. I don’t think I would be regarded as productive enough.”

Which brings us to this piece about how to manage ‘knowledge workers’ (boldface mine):

Knowledge workers are motivated by the work itself and the pleasure of doing it, by an internal drive to find answers or to make things. As most readers of this essay surely know from experience, anything that undermines that motivation—pressure to produce, meddling by management, fear of sanctions, anxiety, resentment, even gratuitous performance bonuses—worsens work performance. The best approach to managing knowledge workers, then, is to clarify the objectives, provide the tools and support they need, facilitate collaboration, and get out of the way.

….Among the 12 books DeMarco has published in his 50-year career (including a short story collection and a novel about project management) is one called Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency….

The book’s premise is that in a knowledge-work context, too much pressure—too much emphasis on reducing wasted time or resources—can cripple knowledge-based projects, in large part by corrupting the environment in which knowledge workers thrive.

When knowledge workers are pressed too hard, the intimate connection between workers and their work is compromised and many things go wrong. Stress and anxiety harm mental health and, hence, performance. Competition rises and team cohesion—a major source of productivity gains—declines. Animosity may develop among staff, or between staff (who feel exploited) and management. Overworked workers take on extra tasks and pay a task-switching productivity penalty that DeMarco estimates at 15%, minimum. And it isn’t just average productivity that declines; it is also peak productivity, those rare moments of transcendence when important breakthroughs are made.

When there’s not enough slack, knowledge workers play it safe and stop taking risks. Organizations, too, do less to facilitate innovation: DeMarco points to the “bankruptcy of inventiveness” that results from “a failure to set aside the resources necessary to let invention happen.”

When the pressure gets too high, people cut corners. They make mistakes. Under intense pressure and faced with the difficult challenge of meeting core goals, many workers aspire instead to proxy goals used to evaluate productivity: Scientists, for example, may pursue publications instead of real, important insights. Worse, faced with intense productivity pressure and dubious productivity metrics, some may cheat and lie to create the appearance of success.

Even in 2002, this insight was not new. When DeMarco joined Bell Labs, the workday there was 7.5 hours long. That length was chosen because the leadership considered it optimal: If the day were any shorter it would leave productivity untapped, they surmised, but if it were any longer it would reduce the creativity and effectiveness of the labs’ scientists and engineers.

I’m guessing that sounds familiar to both scientists and teachers. Of course, in academia there are always more post-docs who are looking for jobs, so ‘low-performers’ can just be let go.

That we might lose the next Higgs is just collateral damage I suppose.

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3 Responses to Higgs and No Slack in the System

  1. Robert L Bell says:

    Yup. It’s really familiar.

    To the point where I got to watch the smartest man I have ever known collapse, screaming, at his desk from a nervous breakdown provoked by a grotesquely incompentent manager. He was escorted off site and was never seen again.

    The manager was transfered to a job that did not involve working with creatives, and his career did not suffer from this little incident.

    And yes, I’m still angry about that whole era.

  2. Academia has become an unpleasant work environment, largely contrary to the ideals of scientific endeavor. From the same article:

    “For scientists in the trenches, more than just careers are at stake. For foreign scientists, failure can mean deportation. For soft-money researchers, it can mean unemployment. When a grant isn’t renewed, tenured professors may be forced to lay off valued staff. As one scientist—one of a growing number of soft-money principal investigators working in the United States—wrote to me in a e-mail recently, “NIH is bombarded by grant-proposals not to advance the cause of science but to keep families housed and fed.” Such pressures affect the way scientists work, the decisions they make day to day.”

    Personally, I about to leave this corrupted and decadent academic environment because of the very same reasons as why Higgs won’t be employed today. Not that I will leave my curiosity for Nature and thirst for knowledge, but I am very keen of continuing my scholarship in the robust or antifragile flaneur style, auto-didactic way advocated by Taleb.

  3. Pingback: Higgs and No Slack in the System | Viral Bioinformatics Resource Center

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