'Clever crazies' quitting science

Creatives put off by plodding conformity demanded in modern research careers, writes Zoe Corbyn

November 27, 2008

Modern scientists are "dull and getting duller" because the career path required to join the profession weeds out anyone interesting, creative or exceptionally intelligent.

This is the view of Bruce Charlton, a newly appointed professor of theoretical medicine at the University of Buckingham, whose polemic against the problems of modern science is published in the current issue of the Oxford Magazine.

"Scientists are, as a group, dull and getting duller: duller both in term of less intelligent and more boring. And the science they produce is increasingly dull," writes Professor Charlton, who is also the editor of the non-peer-reviewed Elsevier journal Medical Hypotheses, which is devoted to publishing "interesting theoretical papers". A recent paper it published suggested that ejaculation could be the "potential treatment (for) nasal congestion".

When it comes to interesting research, he argues that scientists are "not even trying" to produce it, funders are "not prepared" to fund it, and journals are "not keen" to publish it because there is a higher risk of error than in more traditional projects.

He pins the blame on the process of becoming a modern scientist, including what he says is a 10- to 15-year slog before they are allowed to pursue their own research, and a proliferation of "mindless and damaging" bureaucracy.

The career path, he argues, puts off all but the most mildest mannered, agreeable and conscientious, leaving little room for the "wildly creative" personality type possessed by the great scientists of the past. He continued that as intelligence and conscientiousness do not necessarily correlate, those with the highest IQs get filtered out.

"We can only conclude that science is dull mainly because its requirements for long-term plodding perseverance and social inoffensiveness have the effect of ruthlessly weeding out too many smart and interesting people," he writes.

As to where the "smart and interesting" are going, Professor Charlton says it is to the "fast-moving fields" like journalism where they sacrifice "long-term creative and constructive satisfaction" for "short-term stimulation and mischief-making".

But at least - unlike in science - they get daily stimulus and the opportunity to follow their own inclinations and make their mark before reaching their mid-40s.

He concludes that the situation, which is "neither optimal for the individuals nor for society at large", needs to change. But he says ideas for wooing the "clever crazies" back to science are not going to come from within the discipline.

But Peter Cotgreave, director of public affairs at the Royal Society, said Professor Charlton appeared to be looking at day-to-day processes rather than the "bigger picture".

"One suspects that most people do not see the saving of lives, the tackling of climate change or the discovery of the origins of the universe as dull," he said.

Professor Charlton told Times Higher Education that he sincerely believed what he had written. While there are exceptions, scientists are, "on average", dull, he insisted.



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