Cath asked me this a while ago and it's something I've been meaning to get around to. But man, this post is a beast.
In case you missed the prelude, let me just start by defining my terms (again):
When I refer to being "ambivalent" I don't mean it in the more contemporary/colloquial/conventional use of the word. I think that many people use the word "ambivalent" to mean "oh, I could take it or leave it" or "I really don't have any strong feelings either way". Corollary: "I just don't care that much."
The actual definition of the word is what appears in the blog header (in case it's hard to read I'm reiterating here):
a state of having emotions of both positive and negative valence or of having thoughts or actions in contradiction with each other, when they are related to the same object, idea or person (for example, feeling both love and hatred for someone or something [i.e., grad school, or academia]). (blue text is my addition)
This is quite the opposite of the popular usage. What it really means to say that I am ambivalent, is to say that I am conflicted about academia. In the same way that someone who is ambidextrous is equally strong or adept with either hand, I have equally strong feelings (both positive and negative) towards academia.
So I'm going to break this into a few posts. I'll start with the things I have positive feelings about. There will be a second post about the negative feelings, and perhaps a third post in which I will attempt to reconcile the two.
Here are, in my opinion, the positive valences of academic science:
Pure pursuit of truth/knowledge/information
Science, in it's purest form, is a way of knowing. There are other ways to approach what we do not understand about life, the universe, whathaveyou. They also have value. But science is somewhat unique in that it precludes a particular background or set of beliefs. It requires only the ability to observe, to ask questions, and to design and conduct tests that determine the answer to those questions within the rules of logic. Human beings on the whole are capable of participating in such pursuits.
While unique backgrounds and perceptions and beliefs may vary between individuals, and indeed may enrich the pursuit of science by contributing to new directions or approaches (see the creativity section), science does not require that participants begin from an untestable assumption. Everyone's walking around with untestable assumptions floating around in their head, and being untestable, they are likely to vary from one individual to the next. As such, it is difficult to achieve a unified line of questioning the way things work if we are forced to start from disparate untestable assumptions. Science does away with this problem. Assume nothing, or at least assume nothing that you cannot test. For this reason, science is most inclusive of all participants and all pursuits of knowledge through observation. This pursuit is not limited to academic science, but as a basic researcher I appreciate that my choice of what to question and test is not constrained by whether my findings will produce a drug or a profit (this gets into the independence section).
I'm a basic researcher. And I love basic research. Many of my readers know what it means to be a basic, rather than applied, researcher but in case some do not I'll briefly define and then we can get into why this makes me happy and why I feel it allows me to be relatively independent.
Basic research is one half of a dichotomy, the other being applied research. Applied researchers are always looking to use scientific findings to improve something. There is always a next-in-the-pipeline intention for their finding. The basic researcher is looking to learn something new with no pre-defined intention for the application of the findings. Basic researchers are asking questions motivated by curiosity and a simple desire to know. They are operating on the assumption that more information is inherently a good thing even if we don't know what we're going to do with it yet. Findings from basic research projects can often be applied, but that is not the motivation for beginning that line of questioning in the first place. [As an aside, I would say that our current funding regimes are placing a lot of emphasis on applied research, and even asking basic research to be justified in terms of benefit to human health (NIH), which is not inherently a bad thing.]
I like basic research because it fits the way my brain works. I get curious about stuff and I just want to figure it out. I don't need to know how to cure cancer but I want to know how the disease works. If figuring out disease mechanism allows some applied researcher to develop a new treatment, great! But I prefer to work on my science without a pre-defined end goal. I think that academic science supports this kind of curiosity-driven pursuit of knowledge more than say, industrial science where the driving force is product development and profit rather than "hmmmm, I wonder how this works." There's a great need for good applied research both in academia and industry. I just prefer basic research, and I think it is better supported within the Academy than it is in other scientific environs.
This is so closely tied to what I just wrote for the independence section that I am struggling with how to express this. Again, this is closely related to my preference for basic research. I want the freedom to pursue my curiosity and all its whims (independence) and I also want an environment in which this can be approached from many directions. Science, at it's heart, is a very creative discipline. We are always having to come up with new ways to look at things, new ways to ask questions, new ideas about how things might be related and new hypotheses to test. Without creativity science would never move forward.
One of the keys to maximizing creativity is to get as many different and diverse minds working on a problem as possible. As I described in the first section, as finite individuals we're always using our own unique perspectives to approach a question. Not all of them will be the best approach to answer the question. Therefore, having multiple approaches via collaborative efforts between diverse individuals (see the community section), as well as individual flexibility and creativity to come up with new approaches offers the best chance for answering the questions that we ask. I thrive in this kind of dynamic environment and I crave it. I think that creativity is an integral part of any kind of science, but it is less hindered by end goals in the case of academic basic research than in other applied or profit-driven sectors.
I like this idea of a people from a gazillion different backgrounds coming together under a universal method of thought to figure shit out. It makes me all warm and fuzzy. Because really, where else do you have a global network of people who are committed (in theory at least) to discovering the truth, through objective inquiry, without agenda? I think that science, when practiced purely, is humbling. I love Hermitage's metaphors for her academic position -- monks, orders, all in the service of Supreme Science (incidentally, if you haven't read her blog you really should - she's hilarious). I like the idea that academic scientists are (in theory at least) more interested in discovery than agenda. I like that we by and large share reagents, even across national borders and sometimes at considerable expense, because discovery is more important than politics and profit in academia.
Now, before PhysioProf and the rest of the cynics come over here and trash my starry-eyed romantic notions of academic science, do keep in mind that there is a second post in the works about the negative valences of academic science. These romantic notions are the reasons that I got into academic science in the first place. I suspect that they are the reasons that most currently practicing academic scientists wanted to be scientists too. As my advisor is fond of pointing out, nobody gets into this business for the money. Some may do it for the prestige I suppose...but even then, big fish in a small pond really. You might be well-known in the Academy, but probably not outside your discipline, even less so in the general public. So I don't think that fame and fortune are primary motivators for people who go into academic science. I think it's a passion for discovery, the chance to do something that no one has done before, the pursuit of truth using a set of rules that is universally inclusive of anyone who wants to join the game.
I'm disappointed that this post is not turning out as eloquently as I would like it to, which is in part why it has taken me so long to write. I hope that some discussion here will help me to better clarify these ideas.
In the meantime, I'll leave you with this quote from the NYT, which pretty much sums it all up for me:
"It requires no metaphysical commitment to a God or any conception of human origin or nature to join in this game, just the hypothesis that nature can be interrogated and that nature is the final arbiter. Jews, Catholics, Muslims, atheists, Buddhists and Hindus have all been working side by side building the Large Hadron Collider and its detectors these last few years.
And indeed there is no leader, no grand plan, for this hive. It is in many ways utopian anarchy, a virtual community that lives as much on the Internet and in airport coffee shops as in any one place or time. Or at least it is as utopian as any community largely dependent on government and corporate financing can be."