So, Peter Higgs has just collected his Nobel prize for his contribution to our understanding of the physics underlying why everything has mass. He also has given an interview to the Guardian newspaper, in which he raised a number of important points, one of which struck a chord with me as I embark on the first steps of an academic science career…
He says he wouldn’t be “productive” enough to survive (and almost didn’t in the 90’s) in today’s academia, where your worth is measured almost exclusively by your publication record. I already have felt the pressure to publish scientific articles, which, depending on your field, often take as long to write as the experiments that make up their basis take to conduct. That, on top of considerable teaching commitments, writing funding applications, laboratory management and job hunting, can make life as a young scientist feel extremely pressurised (And I won’t get started here about the difference between our official working hours and the reality…). So it’s not surprising that people often neglect some of these duties, or get so disillusioned that they leave academia and scientific careers entirely.
As a scientist, my role is to investigate the world around us, and try to explain what’s going on. Personally, I’m trying to understand how certain materials are made and how their structure affects their properties, for example in batteries. Now, it’s really interesting for me, but I can’t stop there: I have a duty to tell people about it, so that this knowledge isn’t lost and others can build on it. And in science we do that by publishing our results in articles. That means that, if you’re trying to assess how good a scientist is (e.g. for a job or research funding), looking at their publications is a good way to start. In today’s highly competitive world, the publication record is an easy, tangible measure of productivity. HOWEVER, there’s far more to a scientist’s worth than the number of his/her articles or the prestige of the journals they’re published in.
Peter Higgs might have been sacked if he hadn’t been in the running for a Nobel prize, since he’d published comparatively few papers. It was only around four decades after he did the work that its great worth became widely recognised, showing that scientific advances can take time and considerable effort. Peter Higgs was able to do this work because he had the freedom to take time to think, which is increasingly rare in my experience of academia today. So if we want to encourage more, very talented, people to take up science – which would have many positive effects on the economy, education, technology etc. – this emphasis on publication record needs to change.