True scientific creativity is often presumed to be the preserve of independent investigators operating in an environment with none of the practical or political concerns that dog many other workers. In truth, far from being creative, most scientists spend much of their time worrying about funding, sitting in meetings and dealing with administrative bureaucracy.

But, in many ways, academics do live very sheltered lives by today's standards — how many other careers offer tenure or employment for life? And, frequently, an individual's insistence on working as free from tethers as possible can be taken too far, forcing everyone and everything around them to accommodate their needs. This becomes a waste of time and effort — in other words, of money. In this age of economic austerity, has the concept of absolute academic autonomy become a luxury that the scientific enterprise can no longer afford?

A series of Comment articles this week tackles this thorny issue head-on. On page 27, consultant Thomas Marty describes how, in some departments, faculty members insist on each doing their own course planning, choosing times and subjects independently. This forces the administration to revise courses to ensure that the credits assigned to each are consistent, that students have taken the prerequisites the professors require, and that everything is presented in the format that the computer system recognizes, so that students can register online. Although this may sound like part of administrators' responsibilities, the job can be so big that one department Marty worked with had to dedicate two full-time staff members to resolving such conflicts. Yet academics often grumble at the resources their universities devote to administration.

Something that may seem a threat to academic autonomy is often quite the opposite.

If scientists truly value their autonomy, they must let go of the traditions that cause more harm than good to the research enterprise. According to Paula Stephan, on page 29, these traditions are often tied to counterproductive financial incentives, such as a US government accounting rule that allows universities to use debt from new construction to increase the indirect rate that they add to grants for overhead costs. This encourages universities to constantly expand rather than house researchers in buildings they already own, and creates an idea that bigger is always better. But, in biomedical sciences, bigger labs have not been associated with a substantial increase in output, and the economic downturn means “the building boom is now costing the scientific enterprise by creating excess space that cannot be paid for”, says Stephan.

Scientists may bristle at some of the suggestions proposed to improve the efficiency of the research enterprise. Run academic institutions more like private businesses? Increase the power of institute directors and university presidents so they can make more executive decisions without asking for faculty members' input? Place a 'tax' on the use of temporary workers such as graduate students and postdocs, to encourage scientists to hire more permanent staff scientists?

But scientists should think twice about this instinctive, defensive approach. Something that may seem a threat to academic autonomy is often quite the opposite. A standard template for course planning that all faculty members must adhere to, for example, with strict deadlines for each phase, could cut the number of course revisions. This would free staff to deal with other administrative issues, letting the scientists who had been shouldering that burden get back to research and teaching. Similarly, every 16-person committee that meets once every 2 months for 4 hours can amount to as much as 100 labour days per year, when other costs such as preparation time and staff support are taken into account. Although giving leaders more power to make executive decisions without consulting faculty members may seem to threaten academic independence, in this instance giving up decision-making powers allows scientists to spend more time doing creative, independent research.

And if scientists truly value their power and independence, they must lead the discussion over what works in the research enterprise — and what doesn't. If they don't, someone else will make those decisions for them, by imposing even more funding cuts that directly hurt research and teaching. Scientists cannot continue to live by the double standard that Pierre Azoulay recognizes on page 31, applying deep scepticism to scientific data but unquestioning faith to the practice of science itself. They must approach suggestions to improve academic efficiency with an open mind, trying some and noting whether any impinge on their creativity. However, if implemented properly, none of the suggested changes should have any impact on scientists' all-important academic freedom. If we strengthen the system that supports it, science can only thrive.