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The rise and rise of the science politician

George Laoutaris

In our naive youth, we imagine scientific careers that are exceedingly pure.

In them, all that matters is the quality of our ideas, evidence and insight, written up in concise documents and published in refereed journals.

Government research grants are given to the most deserving, and the thrust and parry of scientific debate is conducted with honour, and about as far removed from the grubby world of politics as you can get.

It is a noble profession. Our life’s work is a gift to knowledge and fundamental truth.

Unlike politicians, what you read about us in the papers is fact and our public statements are without spin - after all we’re in the truth business, right?

We don’t have to be good with people because we’re just dealing with concepts and inanimate objects.

We’re nerds and proud of it!

Our scientific leaders are all geniuses right?

The system has filtered out the best of the best to optimise the use of the taxpayer’s research dollar!

Enter the Science Politician …

Then, as we move through “the system”, we realise that this isn’t quite right.

We start to come across people who are in positions of amazing power and influence.

They have charisma and poise.

They spend their time at conferences working the floor at coffee breaks, forging alliances and bragging about their amazing staff.

Kaptain Kobold

When placed in front of a politician they shine. They speak their language: “Key Stakeholders”, “Community Consultation”, “Milestones”, “Deliverables”.

Unlike you, when quizzed about whether they are certain about anything, you get phrases like “absolutely” and “categorically”.

Acronyms such as KPIs, IP and EOIs are flowing. The first few times you come across this stuff the only acronym you can come up with is WTF?

As you float up in the Science world you learn more about the science politician’s modus operandi.

They seem to be on every committee under the sun, and if they’re not, someone else from their institution is.

They’re involved in big grants and on government panels.

They’re amazingly well connected, and their manicured CVs are punctuated by prizes and achievements, often bestowed upon them by other committees of which they were once a member.

A business card is always at the ready, and their presentations are in the relevant corporate style.

Their teams are huge and the papers are flowing, fuelling a positive feedback loop that becomes seemingly unstoppable.

They are part of the growing class of amazingly successful “science politicians”.

But is this right?

But deep down you suspect that something’s amiss. Is this why you got into science in the first place?

You meet plenty of scientists who really know their stuff but don’t ever seem to get grants. Perhaps they are foolish enough to not sex-up their achievements, or partner with people with inferior CVs, or be honest about the potential risk of their grant proposals?

Noel A Tanner

You realise that the science politician hasn’t written a sole author paper for decades even though they wrote a couple of classics in their youth in some other area.

They’re often putting out press releases that are over-hyped, but what does that matter? Investigative science journalists don’t exist any more, so the media just cuts and pastes their press releases so they become “news”.

When you try to collaborate with them you realise they’re debating authorship policies and places on the would-be discovery paper before the experiment has even begun.

You spend more and more of your own time optimising your grant opportunities, appearing on committees, managing your team and dealing with political emails.

One day you look in the mirror, pause, and wonder if your darkest fear has been realised?

Have you become “one of them”?

The new path to scientific glory

How does this happen? Well, the government has made national competitive grants so verbose that to apply for one a year takes out a large fraction of your scarce scientific “research time”, for only about a 20% chance of success of getting half the money you asked for.

And anyone who wins grants early in their career has a phenomenal advantage over someone who hasn’t, because even if they themselves do nothing, they have a workforce to create new ideas and publications, boosting their publication count ahead of their next grant application.

On the other hand, those who fail, have wasted a large part of their scientific year and go backwards, and often back to the classroom.

The science politicians land tenured positions at the Universities with the best students and infrastructure who are thirsty for their grant records.

Soon they’re set. Exponential career growth is underway.

While some are building empires, others are going backward. The community bifurcates, and many of the disillusioned leave the field.

The politics of collaboration

The Internet has radically improved the opportunity for scientific collaboration, productivity and, politics.

Crossett Library Bennington College

It’s inefficient to learn something yourself if a couple of emails and a Skype conversation later you can get an expert to interpret your results and you can just bung them onto the author list of your paper.

It’s the scientific equivalent of international trade, and is highly efficient and largely to be encouraged.

But this leads to discussions of authorship. And the science politician who can argue the best place for their staff on papers stands to gain over the ones who can’t be bothered.

And the more they have to bargain with, the greater their chance of an accelerated scientific career. Labs, equipment, staff time. Soon their political skills are more important than their scientific ideas.

And what about when two science politicians team up and “combine forces”? And these conglomerates merge with others, creating enormous 100, 200 or even 786-author scientific papers.

The end game.

But, does this matter? Science is progressing at an astonishing rate, so do we care if we need a fundraiser?

Dividing the research dollar into infinitesimal little parts is certainly not the way to optimise outcomes.

In the movie business, roles are defined. Executive producers don’t write the scripts or direct the film, they just back winners and get an appropriate title on the credits.

In science however, we’re all just authors.

And our system has started to reward and bestow power to those who master the political scientific game at the expense of others.

The ultimate science politicians might facilitate grants and relationships that can create enormous coordinated teams to tackle the biggest scientific questions.

Some remarkable individuals also retain a deep understanding of the core science.

But our grants and the ever-growing bureaucratic system that feeds science is increasingly mistaking CVs and empires for scientific thought leadership.

And this creates an enormous risk, because there’s a danger that those who’ve mastered the politics of science that delivers massive grants have lost the scientific ability to know what’s best to use them on.

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