Saturday, June 6, 2009

Innovative Scientists Denied Tenure and Grants

There's no point in naming names here. This applies to my husband and several of his friends and colleagues. At American colleges and universities, excellence, innovation, creativity, industriousness and imagination are not rewarded. In fact, the scientists who exhibit these traits are likely to be denied tenure. The schools will make up some excuse -- s/he is productive, but not productive enough. S/he doesn't yet have a world-class reputation. S/he hasn't yet proved the research plan is viable. What it really means is -- s/he has few friends in this department. Social skills rarely go along with genius.
I'm writing this because tenure is supposed to be a reward for excellence. It is supposed to protect a professor from being fired for criticising his or her school, speaking out politically, or even a period without grant support. My husband now has tenure. And it saved his job when he reported his school for illegal use of grant funds. The fact remains that my husband is the sort of person who demands excellence not only of himself and his students and colleagues, but also of his administration, and of the people who evaluate his grant proposals.
And I'm writing this because his latest young collaborator to be denied tenure is a talented scientist whose work I hope to report in this blog in a few years. His interests span the gamut from early disease detection to solar-power-collecting building materials.
The scientists who re-do their PhD. thesis for the rest of their lives get tenure, get friends, and have safe careers, and if they are lucky, they contribute to scientific knowledge. The more adventurous scientists must explore not only in their minds, but geographically as they must find new schools and new colleagues until they hit the right mix that appreciates them. And even then they must struggle to get grants from National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation where the committees are made up of the kinds of people who denied them tenure -- the kinds of scientists who don't understand innovation, creativity and imagination. The members of these committees often don't understand the ideas being proposed by the innovators. They reject original grant proposals with notes claiming that the science in these proposals is incorrect or impossible.
My husband has suggested that scientists who serve on grant evaluation committees be required to pass the advanced placement test in their field -- the test given to high school graduates who want to skip the introductory course in their field. So far, nobody has accepted his suggestion.
I can see where this blog entry can be read as self-serving promotion of people I care about. But it is more than that. The people I care about are the ones who can improve the future for all of us. We have to get beyond grade school evaluation of people as friends and supporters of the status quo which makes us comfortable. We are grownups now and we can look at the outsiders as good-guys instead of freaks to be avoided
Denying tenure or a grant because somebody lacks social skills is delaying progress in curing and preventing diseases, and improving technology. In grade school this kind of thinking meant your softball team might win a game because the nerd wasn't on your team. Now it's the opposite. We need the nerds on our team.

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