When Peter Higgs, of Higgs boson fame, was quoted in the Guardian on Friday as saying “Today I wouldn’t get an academic job” because he would not “be regarded as productive enough”, it prompted much nodding and retweeting from academics.
Coming as it did on the tail of British academics’ rush to complete submissions to the REF (Research Excellence Framework), in a term that has seen two strikes over fair pay in Higher and Further Education and at a time when there are reports of long working hours and other pressure on academics affecting wellbeing , it is hardly surprising that there was sympathy toward Higgs’s negative judgement of today’s focus on “productivity” and publication.
When Higgs was quoted as saying “It’s difficult to imagine how I would ever have enough peace and quiet in the present sort of climate to do what I did in 1964”, many academics undoubtedly heaved a sigh and got back to the marking, teaching preparation, grant application, or whatever other non-research-related activity they were currently engaged in.
It seems, though, that Higgs’s comments struck a wider chord, perhaps because of the extent to which they conform to the stereotype of the solitary scientific genius. His “peace and quiet” of 1964 (aged 35) brings to mind Newton’s escape to his Lincolnshire family home in 1666 (aged 24), and it is contrasted in the article with “expectations on academics to collaborate and keep churning out papers”. This is the kind of thing we want to hear our science Nobel winners saying.
Teaching, which takes up a huge proportion of most academics’ time, is not mentioned in this piece. I have no idea what kind of a teacher Higgs was, but Isaac “lecture to the walls” Newton clearly would have been a flop on Rate my Professor and a liability for a university anxious about its position in the National Student Survey. He would probably have been just as problematic for REF. Although he was to go on to have a staggering impact (or Impact), Newton was famously, for much of his life, reluctant to publish.
In many ways Newton and his mythology became a model for how we think of genius, particularly in the physical sciences. Stories of his youthful moment of inspiration, his forgetfulness, his oddness, his solitariness and his immersion in his work abound. Yet he was also someone who learned not just from books but also from his Cambridge tutors and colleagues and wide correspondence, who made his approaches to the Royal Society with scientific papers and the gift of his reflecting telescope, and who went on to become an MP and to lead the Royal Mint and Royal Society.
Science is profoundly collaborative, relying on communication to peers and students, and collaboration with colleagues and a whole range of other “stakeholders”. It goes without saying that there have, always, been many people doing scientific work who not only put up with but also thrived on all those other activities. Science would not have developed without them.
While there are some, perhaps-justified, fears about modern academia effectively losing the insights of the next Newton, it’s worth recalling the circumstances in which many of the well-known figures in the history of science conducted their work. While they may not have been writing grant reports of marking exams, they were likely seeking patronage, carrying on journalistic careers, undertaking the duties of a doctor or a vicar, teaching, family business or otherwise making a – usually non-scientific – living.
Those who really were excluded were not solitary geniuses who could not find sufficient time for thinking, but those who were, as a result of class, geography, race or gender, never likely to have the opportunity to begin an education, let alone contribute to the established scientific societies and journals. And this affected the science that was done: ample research shows how the norms, assumptions and interests of elites have shaped supposedly value-free science.
Science and academia today remain embarrassingly homogeneous. However, the fear is not so much that we might be failing to find or support working class, black or female geniuses, but that we are more broadly missing out on other perspectives and experiences that would help frame different questions and solutions. It is for this – as well as the good health and useful productivity of academics – that we need to fight not just for better investment in Higher Education, supporting excellent outreach and teaching as well as research, but for a fairer society.