Oxford career oasis gives scholars time to escape tunnel vision

At the Future of Humanity Institute, early career researchers are given two years to work out which questions are really worth asking

March 24, 2021
woman hiking to illustrate taking time out
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In the scramble for the next grant, employment contract or journal paper, many academics will be familiar with a sense of dispiritedly grinding along on a career treadmill with opportunities few and seemingly far out of reach.

But what if early career researchers were given a couple of years to pause and ask: in the grand sweep of human history – the next century, millennium or even billions of years – what questions are really worth tackling?

This is the goal of the Research Scholars Programme, a kind of career oasis offered by the University of Oxford’s grandly named Future of Humanity Institute (FHI).

“There can be a lot of pressure in academic careers,” said Owen Cotton-Barratt, the programme’s director. “And there can be a sense that you’ve got to keep moving, find something productive, and I think that people don’t look so far up.”

The FHI, set up in 2005 by the philosopher Nick Bostrom, has received plenty of attention for its work on threats that could wipe out humanity, be they runaway artificial intelligence or pandemics unleashed by advances in biotechnology.

Its focus, though, is not just on existential risks, but also on how to build a “flourishing long-term future” for humanity, perhaps among the stars – the FHI has researchers looking at future legal systems in space, or investigating why we appear to be alone in the universe.

The Research Scholars Programme, whose third cohort starts next month, gives early career researchers two years to think about what is called “macrostrategy”. This is the art of taking decisions now – like keeping in check new technologies that might wipe us out – that might have a positive impact on humanity far into the future. Fully salaried, the roles are explicitly aimed at scholars who are thinking of doing a PhD or taking a postdoctoral position but are unsure which of their many ideas are worth pursuing.

The genesis of the programme was the realisation that “very few” academics at the FHI “had a kind of straight academic path to what they are working on right now”, said Dr Cotton-Barratt, who has himself pivoted from a purely mathematical PhD to more philosophical questions about moral uncertainty.

“If we think these topics are really important, shouldn’t there be better ways to arrive at people working on them?” he asked. “Shouldn’t individuals thinking about their research careers have more opportunity early on to step back and say: ‘OK, how can I think about what’s important to work on?’”

One of the problems with academic careers, argued Dr Cotton-Barratt, was that researchers were funnelled into well-trodden fields and problems that have a ready-made ecosystem of grants, supervisors and respect from peers working on the same questions.

But there’s a “bit of a chicken and egg problem” for questions that are important but not yet being tackled, he said, as peers are slower to give independently minded scholars credit for taking such a problem on.

Carina Prunkl was one of the first cohort of research scholars, who started in 2018. She used the two years to move away from her PhD in the philosophy of physics and is now a postdoc at Oxford’s Institute for Ethics in AI – an area she thinks will be of crucial importance in the 21st century.

“It seemed to me a way of applying my skills to have a positive impact on the world, rather than sitting in my armchair and thinking about black holes,” she said.

The programme “gave me the freedom to think about what I was actually interested in”, she said. “Especially after a PhD, it’s hard to change your research focus.” Not all of her cohort continued in academia – one founded a non-governmental organisation.

To some academics, the FHI’s agenda might sound uncomfortably focused on real-world impact – albeit on a sometimes galactic timescale – just as governments are perceived to be squeezing the space for purely curiosity-driven research.

Dr Cotton-Barratt agreed that academics often did their best work when motivated by curiosity, not impact. “But I think we need to make more spaces to get their curiosity interested in the big important topics, in a way that isn’t so much under pressure,” he said, and argued that many more universities and departments could benefit from a similar scheme.

A whole two years to think about your research direction was admittedly a “relatively extreme version”, he admitted. But even a more prosaically focused engineering department, say, could gain a “lot of value” from running a week-long conference on “blue-sky thinking”, he said.

“If we turned away from the stuff we’re normally in the weeds of, what other grand ambitions could we be going for?” he asked.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Time out lets scholars’ minds wander around big questions

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Reader's comments (4)

Not convinced sitting around for 2 years dreaming is likely to accomplish much. It’s often the grit that make the pearl. I seem to remember a renowned scientist of the early 20th century whose day job was assessing inventions and who had to find the time to work on matters that emerged to be of terrestrial and galactic significance.
Relatively easy to fund if you can receive £75m from an allegedly dubious source.
Ooops. £150m.
Be nice to have time to sit and think, to be sure. But as a late entrant to academia I don't have that sort of time, I do my thinking in the bathtub! Too busy teaching in the daytime, and at 61 (I did say a LATE entrant...) I cannot realistically wander off for 2 years.

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