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Guest post: We must unseat Research as the sole god king of our field

This is a guest post submitted by Betsy Mills, a postdoc at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Socorro, NM. FYI, I welcome guest posts that promote social justice and advance the conversations we badly need in our field of science, and in our greater society. However, I will retain sole discretion over the content of this blog, so not all submissions of guest posts will be published. Have something you'd like to share here? Send me a proposal, outline or full draft! Y'all know how to reach me. 

I am supposed to be writing job applications right now. But it is difficult when I am having such a complicated relationship with the field in which I am trying to get permanent employment. It is not just a feeling of having lesser value as a woman in this field, seeing how poorly my female peers have been treated and disrespected for decades at Berkeley.  And I am not feeling conflicted wondering how much of this really happened (I sadly believe it all) or what sanctions for Marcy or Berkeley are appropriate (bring them on).  Rather, much of much of my internal discomfort stems from the role played in this saga by aspects of an academic culture that are not unique to Berkeley, and that allowed the behavior of a serial predator to go on for so long unchecked. 

In our profession as astronomers, research is King. And I do not wholly object to that: research is after all our primary job function: we are here to explore the universe. And I love it.  But research alone does not make our field: we cannot also keep this profession sustained in today's society without also having excellent teachers to pass on the stores of knowledge that we have built up, excellent mentors to steer new researchers in the pursuit of new knowledge, excellent outreach that conveys the value of this exploration to the public, and the inclusion and support of excellent researchers from all underrepresented backgrounds of race, gender, disability and sexuality. I believe that this truth is well recognizedbut I also believe that it is not well rewarded.  An anecdote that sticks with me is about a faculty member who received tenure decades ago at a school where tenure was based on success in 2 out of 3 aspects of academic life: research, teaching, and service. And this faculty member received tenure because even though his teaching was abysmal, and his service was nonexistent, his research was so good that it counted as a service to the department. 

I have been told often, by senior mentors whom I respect, to put my head down, and just focus on publishing and doing research until I have a permanent job. That I will have time to worry about teaching, diversity, or being a mentor later (because it won't count for being hired, and it might in fact work against you. And they are right, I have seen it happen). And so I both respect this advice for its expedience, and I hate it because it shouldn't have to be like this. We all are buying into a system where our internal and external self worth is almost exclusively tied to our research, and I believe our field suffers because of it.

To me, the response of Berkeley to Geoff Marcy is a case in point. Because Geoff Marcy's research was so good, he was good for the department, even when he was making life hell for undergraduate and graduate women in that department. More than that, his research was so good that he was simply a good person, as evidenced by the immediate response by the Berkeley department chair to the public airing of this guilt, who suggested that for everyone who knew him these allegations must be "hard to process". Has Geoff Marcy been good for astronomy? He did move the field forward by years in his groundbreaking studies of exoplanets. But he also moved the field backward, potentially by decades, in his treatment of women, directly and systematically driving many of the women who were the target of his advances out of the field, and indirectly contributing to a culture where women were second class citizens because their safety was not being prioritized. And this has not been, and must now be, counted in any assessment of his career.

Finally, this is why I now get upset to see a call just to a subset of specific prize postdocs to urge Berkeley to strong action by boycotting the applications to postdoctoral and faculty positions they are advertising. Yes, I am in favor of a boycott. But the unconscious assumptions that went into the selection of whom to target in asking for their boycott reveals how deep the culture of research as king is embedded. Not just does this call only target prize postdocs, but it only targets a subset of them (Einstein, Hubble, Sagan) for which you are judged on your research and nothing else (unlike, for example, NSF fellows). Of course many prize postdocs use the total freedom they have in the use of their time to pursue a wide variety of activities outside of researchso I am not trying to single them out (and full disclosure: I am a "prize postdoc" myself). But if good research remains the only way that we judge the value of our peers, then I worry we are just perpetuating a culture wherein abuses like those that were committed are not checked. 

I am not advocating that research should not have a primary importance in our field. Rather, I am suggesting that it is time to consider how this monarchy could be overthrown in favor of a meaningfully pluralistic or democratic system in which the a person's holistic contributions to the field are weighed equally with their research. And maybe going forward it would actually help us explore the universe a little bit better. 


James said…
Hi Elisabeth, for the record I completely agree with you in regards to the narrow scope of my initial targeting of the call. I should have made an effort to include everyone I possibly could. Most postdocs work directly for a faculty member, and unfortunately they are more difficult to find as there is no easily accessible list of names, so that is why I targeted the prizes (and not all of them, which was my error).

One of the worries I had about posting my call was that it would be imperfect, and it clearly still has flaws. But I still do feel that it will be a very effective approach to convince UCB that retaining Geoff is against their research-centric (and hopefully their broader) interests. Education is clearly secondary in many research institutions, and having gone through two UC schools where the teaching has been hit or miss, I feel that I can safely say that. I think if Geoff was solely a good teacher accused of harassment, he would be gone already, but UCB values him more because he brings in money and prestige.
ghonada said…
Forgive me if I am wrong, I say the following not merely to contradict but to understand. In science, research is the most important thing. But that does not mean that the crimes of a good researcher should be washed away. Everyone should be equal before the law. If Prof. Macy has abused his colleagues (students are his junior colleagues) he should be punishable under law like the case of any other workspace abuse. Similar laws that apply to lawyers abusing their junior colleagues, or in military for example. For example, consider the case of well-known author Jeffery Archer. He is a creative person, best-selling authors like a star astronomer. But was convicted for his crime and had to spend time in jail. There is one thing before which all should be equal, and that is the law of the land (I wrote should, I am well aware that is not the case). But as scientists our primary duty is research and teaching (if that is also part of our position) and this is what we should be judged by. For a postdoc, research is not merely the King but rather the God of a monotheistic religion.
Of course, my research does not matter if my role as a son, a father, as husband or a fellow human being with social responsibility is considered. But that applies to any other profession too. If someone has to judge how good I am at my job, which should be the only criteria by which I should be judged when I apply for my next job they should only look at my research and teaching and nothing else.
Betsy Mills said…
Suggesting that one's professional conduct should be only a subject of law misses the point. While the actions of Geoff Marcy were criminal and could certainly be pursued in a court of law, they are equally subject to the stated expectations of workplace conduct in his job (see for example: And in such a context he was judged and found guilty. Stating that one's "role as a son, a father, as husband or a fellow human being with social responsibility " should not be judged on the job is simply irrelevant to the issues at play here and in this blog post. This was an issue of professional misconduct, in the workplace, which made it impossible for others to do their job. And as a scientist our job goes beyond just teaching and research, whether or not I believe that these other aspects are appropriately rewarded. Simply read the evaluation criteria for grants from the National Science Foundation, one of our largest funding agencies:

"NSF values the advancement of scientific knowledge and activities that contribute to achievement of societally relevant outcomes. Such outcomes include, but are not limited to: full participation of women, persons with disabilities, and underrepresented minorities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM); improved STEM education and educator development at any level; increased public scientific literacy and public engagement with science and technology; improved well-being of individuals in society; development of a diverse, globally competitive STEM workforce; increased partnerships between academia, industry, and others; improved national security; increased economic competitiveness of the US; and enhanced infrastructure for research and education."

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