Scientists to suffer from psychological trauma

In 1897, Spanish scientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal published an essay titled “Diseases of the Will,” in which he described a set of virtual illnesses 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 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 and the number of doctoral students thrown into the market every year. Because of competition, young researchers are finding themselves hostages to academic publications. Research interests are determined less by the appeal of a topic and more by what a popular journal 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 a researcher with job stability, so he or she can be free to work on inherently interesting problems — 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. Similar to the previous disease, tenure leisure 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 both in their early years as doctoral students and later in their careers — in some cases even past retirement. It is manifested by the realization that life is too short, and that the universe’s puzzles are impossibly endless.

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. Unfortunately, like productivity addiction, financial anxiety is very contagious.

Such diseases are not necessarily the scientists fault. Rather, they are a consequence of the time in which we live. Young researchers who want to pursue a career in science should be warned that there’s little chance of escaping at least one of these diseases.

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Nov. 19 print edition. Marcelo Cicconet is a staff columnist. Email him at [email protected]
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