With Scientific ‘Leadership’ Like This….

Last week, over at DrugMonkey’s joint, guest writer Namaste_Ish argued that her scientific society’s ‘leadership’ isn’t right for the job–here’s a taste (boldface mine):

With over 40,000 members, I look at the presidents of the SfN and wonder; do these people represent my interests and needs? I mean, do I have common struggles with folks in the National Academy, with HHMI status who have unfettered access to top tier journal editors and members of NIH Council? The answer is no, as I imagine it is for most of you.

Admittedly all of the people have made extraordinary contributions to neuroscience research, and have mentored countless outstanding scientists but this is not the job. The job is advocacy and I’m unimpressed.

I did a little experiment and searched Google News for 10 of the last presidents and came up with a rather unimpressive 40 events in which the lot of them had touted science (other than their own work) in any mainstream media outlet. These folks are putting out their semi annual newsletters and gaining ZERO traction in the real world. We can’t afford to preach to the choir any longer. We need people who will use a broad array of social media, PR and outreach tools to get the message across immediately.

I suggest you read the whole thing. Where it gets interesting is that one of the so-called leaders responded, followed by this excellent rebuttal (excerpted; boldface mine):

Your well-crafted response is surely the party line at SfN, but your post is dismissive and insulting in ways you should be aware of given your position at SfN.

…You navigate entirely away from my point to the safe waters of ‘look what we are doing’ and give the impression that SfN is doing a good job. They aren’t. I take issue with your characterization of my post saying “We, too, fervently wish a great news quote or two could change the advocacy outlook ” Show me where I am so ignorant and naïve that I said that or could be interpreted as having said that. Your assumption that I am outside the effort or that the regular readers of DMs blog are (you “welcomed” us to the effort) is also wrong. Very few people who have posted on this blog or in the Twitter stream related to this post are noob advocates.

I have done outreach. I have gone to the Hill. I’ve signed every petition sent by Research!America, SfN, FASEB, Act for NIH as well as spoken to my elected officials. I have pled with the public to fund science research in every bit of PR and outreach I’ve ever done. It is not enough. We are failing and imploding as a profession, something you fail to make note of at all in your response.

I frankly don’t give a rat’s arse if the annual pilgrimage of the SfN Presidents to the Hill happens if nothing comes of it. And nothing is coming of it. Maybe Steve Hyman will show some solid brass balls next week and get up there and make a heartfelt moving plea to Congress telling them they are killing labs, delaying cures and setting back technological innovation and economic growth by failing to fund STEM.

You say that “For more than a decade, SfN has consistently advocated strongly for increased funding for research; just this week, the Society joined Research!America in calling for a 10% increase for NIH.” This is meaningless, as neither group has gotten the job done. Advocacy is not just stating what you want; it is forcing an agenda that effects change. If citing the last decade of pleas for increasing NIH funding as evidence of the power of SfN’s lobbying efforts, then well, you’ve sort of sucked. And its time to change the way we do business.

So please, spare me the links and the paternalistic, ‘here’s how you can help’ chatter. Do I want you to step down from your post? No. But don’t come here with rose colored glasses and assumptions that we just need the link to sign the petition and hope we will all feel well cared for by SfN or any of the other groups that have been in the trenches.

I give you total love for your efforts (truly), but asking folks to ‘keep on paddling’ shows a mind numbing lack of where we are at as a profession.

One problem is, identified in the excerpt from the original post, is that there are never any Marxists around when you need them: the ‘leadership’ class of most scientific societies does not face the same problems the hoi polloi do. The problems the rank-and-file face, often existential ones, do not threaten the big shots, so there is not the required level of urgency–or desperation. In many industries, most workers would be somewhat skeptical of the notion that middle-management would have their best interests at heart.

Successful unions usually don’t elect the ‘best’ teacher, policeman, or steel worker, they elect someone who is a good negotiator and political operator–because that’s the job.

Maybe we brilliant, well-educated scientists could learn a thing or two?

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2 Responses to With Scientific ‘Leadership’ Like This….

  1. Auburn Parks says:

    Yet another example where the mainstream conceptualization of the GOvt’s budget as a household budget (aka ignorance of MMT and monetary sovereiignty) causes evil and destruction. The loss in knowledge from foregone research and researchers is sunk, gone forever and yet the only thing people are ever concerned about is the number of dollars which are in fact in infinite supply and the most renewable resource man has created. Its depressing Mike.

    • Colin says:

      Was just on the Hill doing this song and dance this week. Everyone there claims to think supporting research is important, we just can’t pay for it (or can’t without robbing Peter to pay Paul). Auburn Parks is right, and Mike has said it before, we have lost sight of what is important; real scarcities are possible in knowledge, trained people, and other physical resources required to do science, not dollars. We will pay for this by quashing the once-promising careers and of young and mid-career investigators (and delaying their personal lives) in the short term, but the long-term effects may be even worse. What will pharma/biotech/academic science look like after another 10, 15, 20 years of this? Will we have antibiotics that work? Will we have effective vaccines against emerging infectious diseases? Will we have enough qualified people to even continue to train our (too small) cohorts of new MDs? Time will tell. I’m not optimistic.

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