Plus ça change

1288050071 ef146a1986 mLet’s celebrate the astronomical start of summer, which of course we academics are all furiously spending on research, with some century-old déjà-vu on the topic of research — specifically two items published in Science in the summer of 1914.

The first is a transcript of a speech made at the dedication ceremony of some new buildings for the Wood’s Hole Marine Biological Lab by one R.S. Woodward, who I’m guessing is this Robert Simpson Woodward — physicist, mathematician, and then-president of the well-endowed Carnegie Institute.

Here’s a quick summary of his speech, in case you don’t feel like going and reading it yourself. Judge for yourself how much has really changed.

  • The world is going to hell in a handbasket.[1]
  • But there’s light at the end of the tunnel, and that hope is research!
  • Of course, the public is clueless about what research really is. It’s not inventing things, though we researchers often get forced to invent practical things to justify our existence. But really, “when we consider the great waste of effort and resources entailed by patent litigation, it appears plain that the aggregate of rewards arising from the egoism of the inventor is much less than the aggregate of rewards arising from the altruism of the investigator.”
  • Real research takes experts. We can’t just search through a “drag-net” that has caught all the crackpot theories of “the hosts of amateurs, dilettanti and paradoxers” and try to detect “the relatively microscopic quantity of truth to be found in the vast volume of error”.
  • We can’t leave research entirely to the universities. They can’t seem to decide what the right balance should be between teaching, research, and administration. Maybe they should just stick to teaching.
  • We need independent research institutions, like the one we’re dedicating a building for today (and like that one that, totally coincidentally, I run).
  • Researchers stuck in universities should stop whining about how much money we private institutions have. We don’t have that much. And they should definitely stop trying to get us to share our money with them. Hey, it’s not like I see Harvard sharing its endowment with even worse-off junior colleges. We spend it better anyway.
  • If the universities want more money for research, they should beg rich people for it.
  • The government should do more research too, though those university types are just as jealous of government researchers as they are of us.
  • Unfortunately, the public really doesn’t take scientists seriously. They think we’re just a bunch of male witches. We need to try harder to justify why public policy should take our results into account.
  • We should engage with the business world more. They control our budgets, after all. But the “man of affairs does not understand us, and hence often looks upon us with suspicion or even with contempt.” But we can help them. “It may be easily shown to our satisfaction by a priori reasoning that men of science are no more likely to wreck corporations than financiers, general managers or promoters, but proof by numerous concrete examples must be forthcoming from us.”[2]

That’s the speech. Any of it sound familiar?

A month or so later, Science published a letter by W.E. Castle in response to this speech. It’s this letter that first caught my attention, sharing the page as it does with a one-paragraph note by A.L. Kroeber asserting that Chontal and Seri belong to the Yuman language family (gripping stuff, or, if not gripping, at least concise).

I’m assuming the writer is this William Ernst Castle, geneticist and then holder of a cushy mostly-reasearch job in Harvard’s Bussey Institution — apparently not cushy enough for W.E., since the rant is about how horrible it is to spend so much time teaching, with veiled sniffles that his supposedly research-oriented institution is expected to give occasional tours to unwashed members of the general public. But, unlike most modern academics, he’s not whining about the illiteracy of freshman essays. The onerous work holding back his research career is giving (an unspecified and presumably small number of) research courses to PhD students. The horror!

“The chief energies of many professors entirely competent as investigators are wholly absorbed in laboriously dragging candidates through the academic mill up to the final examination for the doctorate.”

Oh, we wish that that’s how our chief energies were absorbed. But it’s apparently W.E.’s life. It’s hard to imagine which Harvard grad students could have traumatized him so badly that he describes them in terms that would probably get most of us fired today, tenure be damned:

To coach an ambitious but mediocre mind up to the point of making a fair showing for the doctorate is the more exhausting, the more mediocre the candidate. Whatever its educational value, it certainly has little value as research. Yet this makes up a considerable part of the “research” activity of our best universities. Great sums of money are devoted to it in the form of fellowships, scholarships, buildings for laboratories and laboratory equipment for the use of advanced students. A small part of this investment devoted to research by the professors themselves unhampered by a crowd of immature and incompetent students would doubtless be much more effective in advancing knowledge.

While I can’t say this is remotely like my experience with most graduate students, some of the institutional facts still ring a bell today. Universities spend a lot less of their own budgets on research than on grad students — we’re supposed to get external funding for that. Even for the research councils, one of the biggest criteria in judging grant proposals is what kind of training the grant will provide for grad students. On the other hand, there are scattered arbitrary reversals of the philosophy: I have just been told that, although my collective agreement promises me a small expense budget for, among other things, “pursuing research and scholarly work which forms a part of university duties”, it’s absolutely forbidden to use this money to hire a graduate student as an RA. Go figure.

W.E. continues:

The attempt to combine teaching with research has another indirect but evil consequence. The periods which the professor can himself devote to research are intermittent and fragmentary. This affects disadvantageously the topics selected for investigation. They too must be minor and fragmentary. Great fundamental questions requiring long continued and uninterrupted investigation can not be attacked with any hope of success by one who has only an occasional day or a summer vacation to devote to research. The necessity, too, of hunting up thesis subjects for students, small enough in scope to be handled successfully by a beginner in a limited time and yet novel enough to make a showing of originality reacts unfavorably on the professor’s own work. It loses both in breadth and depth. He who in the full maturity of his powers should be doing a day’s work, runs errands for boys, holds their coats and carries water.

Tidy up a few old-fashioned turns of phrase and I could easily imagine everything but the last sentence coming out the mouths of thousands of modern academics. Whether or not every single aspect of university life has remained static in the last century, I think we can agree on at least one timeless truth: Even those in the cushiest jobs complain about how they’re not cushier still.[3]

Random Creative-Commons-licensed photo of Wood’s Hole, Massachusetts, by Flickr user slack12.

  1. You, my clueless ahistorical readers from the future, may imagine that I think the world is going to hell in a handbasket because World War I just began two weeks ago, but no! I think it’s going to hell in a handbasket because of corrupt judges and because those pesky women, despite having more rights than they’ve ever had in the history of the universe, are demanding so much more that they’re literally endangering people’s lives! And because, despite 1914 having the greatest welfare system ever, “there are yet those who would seek to divide the earnings and the savings of the industrious and the thrifty with the shiftless and the improvident.” And, of course, because of out-of-control military spending.

    [Monkey Grammarian will grant that the reasons for the world going to hell may mutate painfully slowly, but it’s clear that the world has been going to hell at a constant rate since at least the invention of handbaskets in the Paleolithic. And for just as long it’s also been obligatory to begin every speech at a public ceremony with a complaint thereon.]

  2. Recent experience would suggest that we “men of science” are in fact exactly as likely to wreck corporations as financiers, general managers, and promoters are — i.e., close to 100%.  For entertaining reading (for certain values of “entertaining”), see this book. And as much we loathe those business fads that regularly sweep through universities five years late, forcing us to deal with pointy-haired bosses, making our lives miserable, and actively damaging our mission (more fun reading), those fads don’t come only from consultants/charlatans trying to make a quick buck before everyone realizes they’re full of shit — a good chunk of the fads were spawned by the very universities they crawl back to to die.

  3. There’s a creepier implication of this rant, assuming this is the same W.E. Castle who dabbled in eugenics. If this is his unashamed public opinion of Harvard PhDs, is this really a guy you’d have wanted passing judgment on the intellectual capacity of everybody else in the world?

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