Hush academic, don’t speak up, Focus on your research and shut up.

Lenny Teytelman Mar 07, 2016

As a first-year graduate student in 2003, I rotated in Michael Eisen’s lab right before the launch of PLOS’s first journal. An older student in the department told me, “Don’t join Mike’s lab. He doesn’t care about the science any more and is just an open access activist at this point.” This is just one of the many dismissive comments I’ve heard since then about Mike’s blogging and advocacy.

Jonathan Eisen has a famous post about a grant reviewer who wrote regarding the grant application:

Outstanding group of individuals, and the organizational and management structure appears sound with clear roles and responsibilities of theme faculty. There is a large focus on developing this for microbiome research, but Eisen seems to be the only team member with this expertise, and may not have the bandwidth to coordinate this on such a large project alone, especially given his high time commitment to his blog.

Friends and family have criticized me for years regarding my blogging:

  • This is distracting you from
  • You are not writing these posts from the office? Well, then it’s taking time away from your family.
  • As a CEO, you should be blogging about science communication and protocols only.

The company is doing very well despite my blogging and I thought I was pretty immune to these comments by now. I was wrong. Yesterday, I was describing the recent sexual harassment scandals in academia to a few friends. I mentioned my blog posts and efforts on this issue, and one of the friends said, “How does this help your company? Maybe you should be a journalist instead of a CEO?”

Of course, the people questioning my commitment and focus find nothing wrong with their own non-job-related activities such as golfing, reading, sailing, volunteering at a school. Somehow, visible public activism is in a category of its own.

It seems my experience is familiar to virtually everyone who speaks out publicly. Fortunately, I am not reviewed by my peers; I don’t apply for grants and do not need to worry about tenure. As long as is doing well, I can safely ignore those who question my commitment. Unfortunately, academics don’t have my luxury. Many hesitate to speak up because of the very real possibility that doing so can hurt their careers.

The anti-advocacy/activism attitude doesn’t just hurt careers and individuals. The question, “doesn’t this distract you from your research?” hurts science. There’s much to fix in our science enterprise, and it’s essential to encourage the people who are passionate about changing and improving the system.