A heavy administrative burden keeps top academic scientists from doing science, argues Adam James
When I grow up, I want to be a scientist. Sometimes, though, I fear that it is no longer possible. I fear that I will become an administrator of scientific tasks rather than an investigator of scientific truths.
My academic experience thus far has taught me that science has become something done mainly by graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, not by the principal investigators who have ostensibly achieved their career goal — the freedom to steer and delve into their own research ideas. The students and postdocs might do science with the firm, guiding hand and skilful collaboration of the principal investigator, or in a series of inspired individual moments, deliberate or otherwise. But they are the ones most often practising the craft. The principal investigator isn't a scientist — not anymore. This person, with all of the education and training to be a scientist, has instead become an administrator.
The tasks are many. Principal investigators must apply for funding, a regular and obviously essential, yet time-consuming, exercise. They must stock the lab with equipment, nurture ideas about the research group's direction and, optimally, relay knowledge about how to use equipment and manage data. They're also often lecturers, or unit or department coordinators, and perhaps advisers for undergraduate students. The principal investigator, as I see it from my graduate-student perch, also provides the link between the lab and the research world by supplying junior scientists with a network of scientific colleagues, financial support to attend conferences, guidance on writing papers and other key forms of help.
In the middle of (and despite) all these duties, he or she should also, ideally, be a source of inspiration for the next generation of scientists. The principal investigator should spend some time supervising undergraduate laboratories; after all, when better to establish a rapport with potential researchers than during long hours assisting with their studies?
The demands are many, and most are worthy. They could easily fill the time of anyone who cares enough to pursue them to a satisfactory, let alone rigorous, completion. Why are course coordination and other routine administrative tasks part of the job description of tenured academics? If our top researchers weren't burdened with these duties, perhaps they could get back into the lab and make more of their contributions to science.
My view of science might be idealistic. To me, science is the way to directly improve the progress and future of humanity. Many occupations contribute to or enhance our lives, from manufacturing and production to sports and entertainment. Politics is admirable in many respects as an archetype of selfless giving, although it is tainted by individual failings and strategies aimed strictly at winning elections. But it is science that provides the means to make a long-term, meaningful contribution to our future by shining a light down the often-dark halls of knowledge. If the scientist inevitably becomes an administrator, this lofty goal seems much harder to achieve.
Somewhere along the line, the institution of scientific research began overloading scientists with too many tasks, too many responsibilities. Hence, the graduate students who do become inspired with the wonder of science may go on to become administrators — less connected to the very science that inspired them. We are training to become scientists, yet, on successfully reaching our goal, we are promptly promoted out of our primary objective and passion.
Maybe this constellation of administrative and research tasks is simply the way things are in an increasingly complex and bureaucratic scientific research environment. Nevertheless, it is a concern for the budding scientist. We need more scientists. We need more teachers and administrators. Ideally, they would not all be the same person.
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James, A. Too many tasks. Nature 475, 257 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/nj7355-257a