Science is NOT like competitive sports
Last week, the Dutch Research Council (NWO) published a short editorial written by the chair of the executive board, professor Marcel Levi, titled “Science is like competitive sports”.
Taking a cue from two major sports events this summer – the European Football Championship and the Olympic Games – he explains why he thinks Science can be compared to competitive sports. “Successful research” resulting from the “hard work by researchers” is compared to the many hours top athletes have put into their training. Levi applauds the competition between scientists (like athletes), even though they all pay a high price in terms of “time, energy, effort, creativity and discipline to ultimately achieve success and sometimes even a place on the podium.”
Researchers from all over the Netherlands have responded with disappointment and frustration, noting that the comparison with competitive sports seems to go against the 2019 position paper Room for Everyone’s Talent: Towards a New Balance in the Recognition and Rewards of Academics, which was supported by NWO. Science is not like competitive sports. It should not even be compared to competitive sports – at least not in the way the editorial article does it. Levi’s comparison both reflects and reinforces an academic climate that is toxic and, paradoxically, does not generate scientific output of the highest quality. Why? Researchers from the Young Academy Leiden explain.
“Many hours a week” should not be seen as the key to successful research
Successful research, according to Levi’s editorial, is the result of hard work, which is likened to the “many hours a week” top athletes must train to achieve their goals. It is framed as an investment of time, energy, effort, creativity and discipline. And while we appreciate the acknowledgement that researchers indeed work very hard, it should legitimately be questioned whether the sheer number of hours a week a person devotes to research are what makes research successful. As an increasing number of researchers is starting to succumb under the weight of unreasonable work hours and work pressure, it is not desirable to promote a discourse of ‘working more is achieving more’. Even top athletes must reserve room for rest and recovery into their training schedule.
As long as the idea prevails that the sheer number of hours a week a researcher can devote to research is the key to a successful career in science, we are losing the talent of those who do not want to, or simply cannot, work beyond the research time allocated to them in their part-time or full-time contract – including academics who care for children or elderly parents, and those who struggle with chronic illness and disability. Perhaps competitive sports is not inclusive, but science should be. Losing the bright minds of those who have fewer time to spend on research, and consequently missing out on the diversity that their perspectives bring, reduces the quality and success of science.
Science is not a competition, since there is no rival
At the core of the editorial lies the idea that science is competitive. Individual researchers or research teams are rivals, set on being “the first to make a discovery” or “the best in their field”. This competition metaphor also extends beyond the editorial, as many grant schemes are presented as ‘competitions’. But why is science molded into a competition to be the first or the best? Is it beneficial to reinforce the idea that one individual’s or team’s or even scientific field’s success should come at the cost of another’s?
Many researchers would agree that scientific practice is not a competition, but a collaborative effort that takes place in a community, which extends beyond a researcher’s direct affiliations. Other individuals and teams are our peers, not our rivals. We engage in science not to be the first or the best in our community, but to tackle a scientific challenge together for and with our community. And this community benefits not only from any of its members making (newsworthy) discoveries, but from all of the tasks a researcher engages in that often go by unnoticed or unpraised: preparing and sharing data, providing constructive feedback on the work of others, replicating and corroborating existing work, reporting on failed experiments, taking care of research admin, supervising students and mentoring future scientists, and so on. Yet, this ideal of an all-encompassing collaborative community dies when a competitive frame is imposed. With support for good quality science across the board in academia, success becomes shared throughout the numerous efforts that academics engage in, instead of being the realm of those selected few who draw audiences, receive attention from the media, and may get a “place on the podium”.
An academic career is much longer than a few peak years
The editorial finally ends with one last comparison: “[d]espite considerable self-sacrifice at times, competitive sports and science give those involved sufficient satisfaction and motivation to continue enthusiastically and perform even better the next season or academic year”. What is not mentioned, however, is how long those involved are in fact involved.
For a professional athlete, this period of self-sacrifice to outperform themselves usually lasts until their (late) thirties, with a few peak years. For a researcher, it spans over multiple decades. And perhaps like the Oranje Leeuwinnen (the Dutch national women soccer team), some of the best researchers in their field receive little recognition or financial rewards for their achievements, and are expected to muster up the energy, effort and enthusiasm for research after working their ‘day job’ (e.g., teaching students, sorting university admin). If anything, the editorial evokes an image of science that, even if in some ways accurate, is simply not sustainable. Ultimately, as the Young Academy Leiden has previously argued in her plea for sustainable excellence, academic careers have to be made more sustainable in the long run to foster the highest quality science.
Just an innocent metaphor?
It may be tempting to dismiss the frustration and concerns by stating that the editorial simply uses an innocent, playful metaphor. And indeed, analogies, comparisons and metaphors can help liven up and tackle complicated topics, because they depend on concrete, familiar experiences to help ‘wrap one’s head around’ more abstract and unfamiliar experiences. But crucially, the scientific literature is very clear on the fact that metaphors aren’t just ornaments of language; they are fundamental schemes by which people conceptualise the world and their own activities. And in fact, drawing a comparison between academia and professional sports in certain ways could be enlightening: academia should, for instance, steer clear from the biases and discrimination minorities face in sports, or one could suggest that academia could learn a lot from how top athletes follow schedules that balance stress and recovery. An abstract (and multifaceted) concept such as ‘academia’ or ‘good scientific research’ can be looked at in many ways, and the concrete, metaphorical mold we use for it determines how the concept is viewed, and which of its facets are more or less prominently in view.
By choosing ‘sports’ as a mold, and subsequently solely focussing on its competitive nature, the editorial gives some insight into NWO’s conceptualisation of scientific practice. Yet, at the same time, it also promotes a mold or framing device that others can adopt. For this reason, metaphors feature prominently in persuasive discourse and ideological communication. In short, the competitive sports metaphor can impose a particular way of thinking about science, and by extension reinforce a behavioural culture in science that is all but innocent. The editorial presents and reinforces the idea that science thrives on fierce competition and self-sacrifice. But science will prosper when we enforce the idea that it thrives on community, collegiality, inclusivity, and self-care. If we are to be considered academic athletes, that is the kind of arena we want to perform in.