Early-Career Scientist associations as drivers of change

As demonstrated in the discussion of the Lindau Guidelines, Early-Career Scientist (ECS) associations have the power to establish guidelines and drive change in many areas of academia. We believe that ECS associations are crucial in fostering the collaborative, open and sustainable science future the Lindau Guidelines aim for. Here, we discuss the ideal academic system, then various parts of academia that could be reconsidered, and how ECS associations can drive this.

The ideal academic system

The progress of academia is highly dependent on the work of early stage researchers, who constitute a significant portion of the workforce of the community. The intellectual aspirations, wealth of knowledge, technical know-how and creative ingenuity of this community are the #1 resource which pushes the bounds of all progress. Academia also provides the exclusive framework to pursue research about fundamental questions that impact our understanding of the universe and all that constitutes it. Academics form a large number of close-knit expert communities that tackle challenges cooperatively and could be seen as the hope for humanity to tackle many other problems.

The role of ECS associations in an ideal system:

The presence of large professional societies and associations (such as early career scientist associations) allows for communities with common interests to convene, exchange knowledge, debate and enact any changes with democratic consensus. In this way, academia presents opportunities to drive wide-scale transformation by making changes within the educational and training ecosystem which prepares the future workforce of our planet. Academics love their work and their labour helps improve our societies.

In reality, this ideal system does not work perfectly, and scientists are experts at improving conditions. Let’s have a look at some of the systems of academia we can work on improving together in the following sections.

Parameters of Success

Current system:

Reward structures within the communities are parameterized by productivity, "healthy competition" and rapid breakthroughs. In order to comply with the demands of such scientific competition, the burden often falls upon the early-career scientists, who agree to the terms & conditions laid out by the influential names in hopes of making it through the system as an essential rite of passage. Such a culture is inimical to ideals of true collaborative work when equals are pitted in competition against one another.

In matters of employment, the hiring procedures are often opaque. The system reduces the quality of individuals based on their number of publications, the reputation of their institutions, their scientific pedigree, which again detracts from harnessing the many other skills and characteristics of individuals, for instance their abilities to disseminate knowledge to students, their extracurricular engagements, and their actions towards being a holistic citizen scientist.

How ECS associations can strive towards realizing the Lindau Guidelines:

There is much to be done in the area of the academic-job application process, especially at the faculty level. The current evaluation procedures are often not transparent, institutions do not appear to give much weight to extracurricular activities and diversity of candidates, even if their official statements suggest otherwise. We, as ECS associations, should support initiatives tracking data on postdocs and graduate students on the job market and their experiences with the academic job application process. One useful activity that could be organized within a large early-careers association network is a set of programs aiming to establish the routine collection of data (survey) from postdocs and graduate students on the process of getting their faculty job, which can be also linked with peer-to-peer mentoring. Ideally, the changes should come from the hiring institutions. However, strong, well-planned advocacy can be hugely influential here

Finding a Niche

Current system:

The academic job market is harsh. Depending on the country, only about 3-5% of PhD students secure advanced academic roles. This leads to an environment of unrealistic expectations from individuals and fosters cut-throat competition between them. It is deleterious to the mental health of early-career researchers. Moreover, non-academic career paths have been represented as an afterthought.

How ECS associations can strive towards realizing the Lindau Guidelines:

We’ve discussed advocacy a few times on this website. ECS associations can advocate for a change of mindset. We can demonstrate that there are a multitude of jobs that are essential beyond traditional academic roles which make for a richer and more far-reaching community. This realises Lindau Goal 02, on global cooperation on problems. See our post on career development for more information

Science in a Vacuum

Current system:

The specialization and compartmentalization of labour has had a strong influence on the kind of work scientists undertake. It is rare to see academics engaging in social and ideological debates as they may feel they are expected to stick to strictly academic work. We believe that the distancing of ideological considerations of academics is no longer viable, in the face of ever-growing complex societal problems. These are lost opportunities for society to have important conversations in international environments.

How ECS associations can strive towards realizing the Lindau Guidelines:

As we’ve discussed elsewhere, our ECS associations can work to ensure that young scientists regularly communicate with the media, policy-makers and the general public. This realizes Goal 09 (communicate with society) and 10 (engage in education). By engaging in media training and building relationships with the general public, ECS associations can ensure the public has great trust in the next generation of scientists, and a deep understanding of the work of scientists.

Revaluation and sustainability of academia

Current system:

Scientists do the research which is then shared as articles and editorials in the form of commercially published work. The body of published work is vetted by a group of reviewers, pro-bono, as a form of respectable service to the scientific community and is then published by journals who often demand readers for payment to access this publicly funded work. The practical application of the output of scientists is often commercialized by industries.

Academics mostly gain reputation. As the protagonists of scientific production, profits from commercialization need to also return to academic environments to continue fostering scientific progress. Academia-industry collaboration has shown to be a motor of scientific advancement, and as such, it is important to guarantee its continuity in a sustainable way through new models of bidirectional alliance.

How ECS associations can strive towards realizing the Lindau Guidelines:

ECS associations represent the next generation of scientists. By advocating and educating now, we can set the basis for a future of open-access publishing, new models of bidirectional collaboration between industry and academia, and higher funding and compensation for academic work.

Diversity and Inclusion

Current system:

Even though all researchers have a similar perception of scientific careers along with a shared view of the obstacles in their path, these obstacles have been shown to be quantifiably more severe for many minority groups. For example, taking a career break in the form of maternity leave at the early-career stage may put people at an disadvantage in comparison to their peers in terms of professional growth. At the undergraduate level, one study showed that a third of minority students in STEM degrees either left university or changed their major. The ‘leaky pipeline’ analogy suggests that while some minority groups are present in large numbers at the early career stage, this number steadily decreases as we move towards high level scientific leadership positions.

How ECS associations can strive towards realizing the Lindau Guidelines:

ECS associations have the opportunity to work with their membership base to slow the leaky pipeline now, before it is too late. By engaging freely with each other, a mutual understanding of others’ positions and shared experiences can be a unique support system developed within ECS associations.