To be a scientific intellectual today

George Busby has put up note about changes in his career path, Meditation on the Caltrain. I took offense to this section:

On top of this, there was the burgeoning realisation that no one actually reads the academic papers that I write. This is no moot point: writing papers is the main purview of a research scientist, and the central way we both communicate our results and measure success. However, compared to the proportion of the world’s population who can read, the number of people that had sat down to ingest my latest, dense, and fascinating (to me at least) treaty on the population genetics of Africa, three years in the making, was minuscule. The words of a colleague rang in my head: “99.9% of scientific papers just don’t get read”.

His most recent paper, Admixture into and within sub-Saharan Africa, was great. I meant to blog it, but got busy with other things. To be frank the fact that someone like George Busy is having trouble in the academic market is sobering. He has produced good and prominent work, and has been attached to groups which have some prominence. Of course grant approvals and job prospects have a stochastic element. But his experience shows that talent and good work is just a necessary, not sufficient, condition.

It looks like Busby will land in Silicon Valley with one of the two companies that do a lot of work on ancestry. Good for him. I think it does behoove those of us with intellectual pretensions to wonder what we’re doing out in the world. And, it also behooves academics to wonder what they’re doing with their job security. Sometimes it is important to tell the truth and explore topics even if people don’t care, or don’t want to listen. Otherwise, why fund anything that’s not practical with the public fisc?

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