Feb 212019

This is another post, much like this one (and very much inspired by it), that is more about professional development / career issues, and less about linguistics. So if this kind of thing interests you less, maybe skip this one.

One thing that academics have to periodically do throughout their careers is write various kinds of “statements” about what they’ve done so far, and what they’re going to do in the future. This starts with your application to grad school. It continues through applications for jobs, both temporary and permanent. And if you’re lucky enough to land a tenure-track job, then it continues through the 3rd year review and into the tenure dossier. (I haven’t gone up for full professorship, but I have no doubt it would be a component there, too.)

There’s something cynical about these documents. Or at least I’ve always felt that way. How the hell am I supposed to know what I’ll be doing even one year from now? Every idea I’ve ever had (whether good or bad; that’s for others to judge) has felt, at the time, like the last idea I’ll ever have. Getting to the next one feels at least as much a matter of blind luck as it does anything else. And so the future-oriented part of these statements has always felt deeply insincere to me. Theoretical science is a creative endeavor; if it wasn’t, it could be mechanized and automated. And creativity is not a top-down, corporate-management-able affair – however much some university administrators enjoy the pretense that it is.

Though these thoughts have been rattling around in my head for years, they were recently made salient by an invitation I received to give a trio of talks somewhere (yes, yes, humblebrag). This primed the question – in my mind, and apparently in the mind of the person inviting me – about whether there would be some unifying theme to these talks beyond “morphosyntax talks given by Omer.” And the slightly amazing thing, from my vantage point, is that it was obvious to the extender of this invitation that there would indeed be such a theme, and they even articulated roughly what they assumed it would be. (EDIT: And their assessment was spot-on, imo!) Of course, these three talks are about research I’ve already done. If you asked me right now what a fourth talk would be about, if I were forced to give one, the honest answer would be that I have no freakin’ clue.

How did we get here? What on earth leads the people evaluating individuals at various career stages to expect those individuals to produce prophecies about fundamental science, a ludicrous idea on the face of it? My two cents is that there are two main forces at work here. First, the broadening and democratization of the field (by which I mean, the not-yet-done-but-gradually-progressing process whereby more and more people have access to a good education) has led to a glut of qualified candidates at every career stage, and evaluators are grasping for something, anything, that will tip the scales one way or another. And in so doing, they (we) succumb to the fallacy that fundamental science can be predicted.

I think the second force, though, is stronger and more pernicious: it’s the grant‑ification of theoretical science. As public funding for universities plummets, admin bloat swallows up much of what remains, and large swaths of the modern university turn to granting agencies (NSF etc.) as a way of plugging the shortfall, there is an expectation that this is just how it should work now. The university doesn’t have meaningful financial abilities to fund open-ended, intrinsically-un-guaranteed fundamental science, so anyone wanting to do such work (and, equally if not more important, sustain a graduate program where students get to do so) should secure their funding from external sources. Crucially, these external funding agencies operate on a model that looks more like engineering than science: you tell them ahead of time what the ‘deliverables’ for your project are, how they’re going to benefit your field as well as society at large, etc. etc. (I frankly don’t know the history well enough to say whether this is the true etiology of, say, the standard NSF proposal structure; I suspect that maybe medical research is the template here…?)

This, it should be clear to anyone who has done even a little bit of theoretical research in their life, is patently ridiculous. This kind of work is at least as much a matter of blindly grasping in the vast darkness, as it is anything resembling a planned, structured endeavor. Maybe the reality is that we live in a world where social priorities have shifted, and there simply isn’t enough funding to support as much fundamental science as there used to be. Be that as it may, awarding the funding that remains on the basis of the criterion of who is most skilled at weaving fallacies of manufactured certainty seems like an awfully wrongheaded strategy. As others have noted, it seems that even a straight-up lottery would be morally preferable to this.

In conclusion: down with Big Statement.

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