In striving to understand the world, scientists work in a community that is free of hierarchies. All good ideas are heard and the best prevail. Attributing intellectual breakthroughs to individuals is unimportant, because everyone knows that innovations typically have multiple origins. At conferences, all members of a research team present results on an equal footing. Scientific policy advice, especially during the climate crisis and the coronavirus pandemic, draws on expertise from both younger and more experienced scientists, regardless of how strong their networks are. This ensures that a variety of perspectives receive adequate consideration so that complex challenges are met with the best possible recommendations.
Consider the alternative: In striving to understand the world, scientists are especially preoccupied with power and prestige. Research group leaders are listed as co-authors on any and all publications written by the members of their research team. They are the only ones to present the group’s work at scientific conferences and they put considerable pressure on the members of their research team to produce results as quickly as possible. Within research groups, egotism and competition predominate. The attribution of ideas is of critical importance, leading to time-consuming arguments and the formation of separate factions within research fields. Scientific policy advice only takes into account the voices of »experienced« scientists, who have invested considerable time in developing networks to advance their careers.
Which of these two imagined working environments is more likely to inspire scientists and produce innovative ideas? Which is more likely to result in carefully deliberated and sustainable policy advice?
It is time to rethink the role of leadership (in science) – a polemic
JAM #27 — Role Changes
Astrid Eichhorn, Michael Saliba, Erik Schilling
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While both scenarios exaggerate reality, there is a disturbingly large number of examples of the latter: research group leaders who bully doctoral candidates, important perspectives that are overlooked in policy advice, bitterly divided research fields, long-standing feuds about the origin of ideas, and academic positions that are awarded to the candidates with the most influential networks. While these more egregious examples are isolated cases, misconduct is a near daily occurrence in many places.
What is at stake here are questions of power and responsibility – in other words, questions of leadership.
Doesn’t this suggest that it is time to rethink the role of leadership in science?
Successful leadership means creating an atmosphere that gives each member of a team the best opportunities to develop their individual potential. In presenting the 2019 Richard Glazebrook Medal and Prize, the Institute of Physics in London wrote that it is rare to find support that does not in some way depend on »reflected glory«. The recipient of the prize is known for demonstrating that successful leadership is not about gaining power or building up one’s own reputation.
Rethinking and developing new forms of leadership are also needed to protect the mental health of employees and ensure constructive collaboration between working groups as well as high quality scientific results and innovations. Ideally this would be coupled with the adjustment of incentives across the entire scientific system – including funding sources.
It is absurd to assume that excellent researchers are automatically qualified to lead and mentor the members of their research team. The ability to responsibly carry out a leadership role and focus on providing individualised support is a skill that must be learned. Currently, this is not a required part of scientific training and, as a result, a sort of institutionalised dilettantism is the norm when it comes to the leadership of both working groups and institutions. We must recognise that leadership qualities are not »soft« skills, but do in fact constitute critical skills that should become an indispensable part of the scientific curriculum.
We can see overall societal trends reflected in the scientific community. For instance, how we talk about science strengthens the idea that individuals – geniuses even – are responsible for our progress: Newton, Einstein, Hawking … was there anyone else? The same is true for companies: Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates – there is no mention of teams. But we would all do well to recognise that mastering complex challenges requires that people with different skill sets work together. Most recently, the coronavirus pandemic has reminded us that it is not just those in positions of leadership who are important. When each individual has the opportunity to develop his or her potential and the progress of some does not come at the expense of others, society as a whole benefits.
The physicist Astrid Eichhorn joined Die Junge Akademie in 2018. She is a professor at CP3-Origins at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense.