Entitlement, Success and Meritocracy

I came across a great post, “Filthy Lucre”. It’s by an artist named Molly Crabapple. I’ve started working my way through her older posts.

Here is an bit that caught me:

If you have money, you can pay to live in a bubble of politesse. …. Soon, you think this treatment is earned. Meanwhile, we treat the poor with casual cruelty. “

And:

I am good. But it’s never just about that.

You can go through this whole article and change “artist” to “scientist” [my edits in bold] and it speaks to us:

Even we successful artists scientists do it. It’s easy to ignore luck, privilege, and bloody social climbing when you stand onstage in a pair of combat boots giving a kick-ass talk that has been published in a glamour journal. It’s easy to say that if people are just good enough, work hard enough, ask enough, believe enough, they will be like us.

To me, this is one of the most important problems facing science right now. Its partly the too many mouths at the trough problem. But I know that there are people, not just the BSD’s who think that its just natural selection at its most bloody. And somehow and that that’s ok. We need to have lots of trainees to determine who is the best, and then they can become the big dogs of the next generation. The good will survive. The best will flourish. Somebody has to get those NIH grants. There is a more insidious version “why should I tell someone they can’t be a scientist? Let them try, anything else is unfair to them”.

We need to acknowledge that its not just enough to be good. We need to understand that there are lots of people who are good, smart, creative and hardworking, who can’t make it. There are a myriad of other factors, often ignored. Who is socially acceptable, even to the knee-jerk liberal academic physicians who live in gated-white-only communities? Is an undergraduate from Harvard really that much better than an undergraduate from UMass Boston? What are we doing to support people who are not like us? What are we doing to encourage other kinds? Training and crunch time happens when women are starting families –  this is not a test of how serious they are about their work.

Then, there are layers of of prejudice and self-deception within and among sub-disciplines, about sub-disciplines. Where is your molecular genetics was replaced with where are your proteomics which is now where are your optogenetics. Basic science is not as important as translational, at least right now.

I don’t know enough about the art world to talk about Crabapple’s conclusion and advice:

Celebrate beating a treacherous system. But remember, there is no god handing out rewards to the most deserving. Don’t pretend that everyone can win.

But I do know that in science, there are things we can do to change the system that don’t involve taking off our clothes (thank goodness- read her article for context). Funding for us is not quite the faceless, private enterprise it often is in the art world. We know where money comes from, and we are capable of doing things to change it. And while “we” here means mostly post-tenure folks, its not just blue-hairs and grey-beards. (and no, killing off the oldies is not going to solve the problem). It isn’t easy, and its not doing the science we love, the reason we got into this in the first place. Change is possible, but it doesn’t happen if you shrug your shoulders and say “oh yeah, not everyone can win”.

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5 thoughts on “Entitlement, Success and Meritocracy

  1. Pingback: Who could get a job in academics right now? | Mistress of the Animals

  2. Pingback: Links 1/2/13 | Mike the Mad Biologist

  3. This is what happened in the 1930s. People realized that being good, working hard and all those great things that one was supposed to do in the 1920s to achieve success might have been necessary, but not sufficient, and that the countless Americans left behind were down and out through no fault of their own.

  4. Pingback: Shades of grey | Mistress of the Animals

  5. Pingback: loving your work, class warfare, and spoiled millenials | Mistress of the Animals

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