Opinion: Making Progress by Slowing Down

Academic research could be strengthened by thinking more and doing less.

By | August 24, 2015

PIXABAY, UNSPLASHThere was a stretch of time when I would spend a week or so each summer visiting some friends who were academic colleagues. Typically, our days were structured around generous amounts of “schmooze” time.  First, there was the requisite two-hour breakfast at a quaint, hole-in-the-wall restaurant. These meetings were about more than sharing a meal; we covered a fair amount of ground over coffee, eggs, and whole-wheat toast. We hashed out serious questions related to our areas of scientific interests, argued over the changing politics of academic research, and strayed unflinchingly and irreverently into topics for which we have no particular claim to insight or expertise. Without breaking our conversational stride, we would eventually make our way to the university (a 20 minute drive), stopping for coffee along the way. From parking the car to entering the lab, we’d make another pit stop for coffee and decide when and where to have lunch.

Truth be told, my visits did disrupts my colleagues’ typical daily workflows. For the week or so I was in town, and to the extent that we could, we cleared our calendars of the usual meetings, conference calls, emails, and manuscript preparation and grant writing time. To make up for lost time, we stayed up too late and woke up too early—recalling the sleep deprivation that led to soaring bouts of creativity during our student and postdoc days. We indulged in those freewheeling discussions in which an out-of-left-field comment could completely alter the way we were pursuing a problem. But time is an expensive commodity and the freedom to really talk things through comes at a price.

I took heart thinking that when my visit ended, at least at breakfast, the spirit of “think more, do less” would live on.

Sadly, our increasing academic seniority—along with the requisite increase in busy work and “do more” atmosphere of science—saw my annual visits go the way of the Dodo. Clearing multiple calendars for week-long visits is now a rare kind of celestial event. Now, our exchanges more often take place via emails written while waiting for planes. Recent reports from my friends is that breakfast has become a special event.

And what about the science?

I don’t believe that doing more is always better. Paradoxically, doing more can lead to fewer impactful results—smaller questions, smaller insights, and smaller advances in knowledge. It is unfortunate that just about every professional reward and incentive in academic science requires that more and more be piled onto ever-crowded plates. Can supervising more trainees, being named on more grants, and appearing as an author on more papers really equate to being more productive?

The anecdotes of researchers at some of the most productive institutions during halcyon times of progress recall a complex web of time in the lab, competitive sporting games, whimsical parties, mountain hikes, and walks on the beach. There seemed to be a fair amount of wine, lots of long dinners, and plenty of bull sessions.

Of course, in reminiscing on my own breakfast and lunch meetings lost, I may well be romanticizing the past. Academic science has long required a highly competitive drive and a ‘round the clock work ethic.

But, I’d argue, it still requires time to think. Time to talk.

Despite the dominant image of the lone-wolf genius solitarily toiling away in the lab, science tends to be quite social. Serendipity, the oft-credited god of scientific progress, is rarely about findings. When it occurs, it is about the questions. It comes from the fine-combing of results or bouncing of ideas off of our friends and colleagues who supply fresh ears that helps us break new ground. An unexpected observation arising because someone else is taking the time to understand our stumbling blocks can set a stalled project on a fresh course.

During those lost summer weeks, my colleagues and I recalled what drew us to science. We focused on ideas. We laughed a lot. We weathered accusations that we were “slacking off” knowing full well that we’d more than make up for our time away from the lab by bringing in fresh perspectives.

To my mind, science benefits when we think more and do less. I say we start with breakfast.

Susan Fitzpatrick is president of the James S. McDonnell Foundation.

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Comments

Avatar of: Ken Pimple

Ken Pimple

Posts: 42

August 25, 2015

The key sentence: "Paradoxically, doing more can lead to fewer impactful results—smaller questions, smaller insights, and smaller advances in knowledge." It is often mistaken to think that working harder means better work. Science should not be treated like piecework - the more papers you publish / the more socks you sew / the more you are paid. 

Avatar of: Neurona

Neurona

Posts: 70

August 25, 2015

My favorite words in science are "Hey, what if...". Time to think and converse is lost to most people. This op/ed is right on.  

Avatar of: Eric J. Murphy

Eric J. Murphy

Posts: 20

August 25, 2015

When I was a lad in the business, I was fortunate to work during the last  portion of my graduate students with Eugene Roberts.  He provided a unique perspective and talked often about thinking more and being reflective.  I recall a story about an individual he saw as a young faculty member who stared out the window, day-in-day out.  As a young professor he asked someone what the older colleague was doing.  Thinking was the reply.  In short order the thinker was awarded a Nobel prize. 

I think the point is we don't take time to think and reflect on our field.  I like to do this while mowing the yard or shoveling the snow.  But walking into the University, my thinking is curtailed by too many other events, meetings, and teaching.  We don't sit around and thing with our students, rather it is a rush to get things done.  Everyone just seems to busy to stop to think and to reflect, but isn't that what we're supposed to do? 

Avatar of: PastToTheFuture

PastToTheFuture

Posts: 97

August 25, 2015

I recently pulished a book on intelligence and genius... somewhat whimsically. Much of the discussion was about that the cogitive processes of intelligence were created by evolution and so didn't always make sense to a more critical farme of mind. It's about pattern recognition and you can never guess what will complete the pattern. Also, there is a time factor. I don't know about others, but doind software development now, I recognize that there is about a 30 hour delay required for me to internalize a technology. 

The reason I wrote the book was that my first project was very difficult and I got used to the fact that it just took time to solve problems. I got used to it and could be fairly predictive about the required time of certain parts. Rushing doesn't help. It just takes time.

Avatar of: gsb77

gsb77

Posts: 1

August 26, 2015

Thinking is a form of doing...it's whether the thinking is clear or not, and the plan is executable or not.  Great thoughts can occur in isolation or as part of group activity, and many great thoughts do not require long periods of incubation. This editorial is superficially attractive and we are all for good socialization, but it does not get at the root of the issue, and that is how funders have debased scientists by not developing dynamic methods for scientists to be fully accountable for their work. Scientists want to be held accountable in the right ways...most are really tired of the first author/last author and impact factor absurdity, the impossibly short-sighted grant cycles, and really tired of the way that leadership (and hence grant support in) specific fields is often ceded to a heralded few, based on little other than that since we have no good means for accountability, we default to the People magazine mode of anointing leaders.

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