What I have Learned in a Year as an Independent Scientist

About a year ago I left the world of academia after years of disappointment and frustration with a culture of careerism and bureaucratic overload. I increasingly found that winning grant money was deemed more important than finding out things, and that scientists and students were valued much less than over-payed and under-talented (unless you count a strong sense of self-importance as talent) administrators. The annoyance with these problems had built up to a level where I needed to make a change. So I left my (non-tenured) research position at an Australian university and headed to the Philippines, the country with the world’s best dive spots and friendliest people, to teach scuba diving.

I am now not employed by a university anymore, but while I left academia, I certainly did not leave science! I am still very interested in the pursuit of knowledge. The way I initially planned things was to swap my weekend and weekday pursuits; In Australia I had already taught scuba on the weekends, something I really enjoyed. My plan was to make this hobby my main source of income, and then do science – real science, not university administration & grant writing – on my evenings and days off. I was going to be an independent scientist (“gentleman scientist” in the words of my friend John J. – who immediately after saying that felt the need to qualify that he didn’t really think I was much of a gentleman). I was going to live on a tropical beach, and do theoretical biology on the side. I was going to be biology’s Garrett Lisi!

How did that work? So far, surprisingly well. Partially that’s due to the rather special circumstances I am in. But I think that there are also lessons to be learned from my experiences for other scientists.

On the bean-counter surface, I did relatively well last year. I published, with some great colleagues, a paper on computational studies of neurodegenerative diseases. I am also revising a paper, with another great colleague, about oscillations in brains, and I am working on two more theoretical biology projects right now. I got cited 95 times, the most in my scientific life so far (of course that’s mostly due to previously published papers and book chapters, not due to any new work).

I started my life in science as an experimental neuroscientist, but soon switched to theoretical neuroscience. Then, in the following years I was consistently living near the one or another ocean and spent a lot of time scuba diving. The observations I made underwater heavily fueled my interest in marine ecology and evolution. The other force which drove me more and more towards ecology and evolution was reasoning along the lines of the late Ted Bullock‘s extremely true statement that “Neuroscience is part of biology, more specifically of zoology, and it suffers tunnel vision unless continuous with ethology, ecology, and evolution”. I sincerely believe that he was right, and over the years I saw a lot of ecology happening right in front of my diving mask. I felt intellectually compelled to dig deeper into this field, and to read up on what I saw.

So, spending a significant time of my waking hours underwater in my new career (50 dives a ~ 1 hour this January alone) is really synergistic with my interest in marine ecology. Even when diving with students, I get some time to admire the marine biodiversity and the marine animal behavior in front of me: The color changes and social interactions in mating surgeonfish make me reflect on the evolution of social systems in vertebrates; Schooling sardines forming living swirls, balls and arks make me think about the emergence of group behavior from the individual animals’ actions; And the frequently observed examples of symbiosis on the coral reef, like cleaning of parasites by wrasses make me contemplate the co-evolution of symbiotic partners; A coral reef really is a biologist’s candy store, and I get to observe its workings for many hours every week.

Marc in the Morazan

My new office

But science is of course more than having good ideas. Even in theoretical work, the ideas need to be thought out, discussed, put in context with the existing literature and written down. That process needs colleagues willing to engage in scientific exchange, library access, some spare time and personal discipline. These needs are less of a given for me now than when living the university academic life.

Most of my colleagues were great! Only one decided that I was no longer a useful pawn in academic power games and terminated projects with me without even telling me. But really the vast, vast majority of people I had a fruitful intellectual interactions with continue these now, remotely. There is email, skype & Facebook. These days its not hard to get your ideas to a dude on another continent.

Very often, in order to participate in the more formal exchanges of scientific ideas, you need an affiliation. That is, some institute, university or museum where your academic home is. It would come across as odd to just write your home address in the author affiliation line of a scientific paper. I have joined the Neurolinx Institute in La Jolla, CA, founded by my mate Jay Coggan, as a home for independent scientists. I think institutions like Neurolinx will have an important role to play in a future with more “gentleman scientists”.

A lot of scientific literature is freely available online these days. Some of it is behind paywalls. The aforementioned colleagues have also been great in providing me with access to the later.

There were times last year when I was very busy teaching diving (which is more work but more fun than I though, more on that in a future blog post), and other times when my late afternoons and evenings were free. Free to …. and this is where personal discipline comes in. Or not. Places like Moalboal, Cebu or El Nido, Palawan have a good mix of fun locals and interesting travelers to socialize with. A Philippine country disco can easily get into the way of paper reading. In order to get some science done, I need a few evenings per week to myself and theoretical biology.

I mostly manage to summon said self-discipline. Science is fun. In this way, I have had almost as much time for science as I had before my life-style change. I spent ZERO hours last year applying for funding I don’t need anyway (but which made the administrative overlords happy), and I spent NO time filling out progress reports, travel diaries, and did not waste my time with any other absurdities of modern academic life. The time left for actual scientific thinking left after either teaching scuba or grant writing is comparable. Even the periodicity s comparable: during the tourist season, I can do less science, in the off-season I have more time for my scientific passions. Interestingly, diving tires me out in a different way, in a much more physical way than grant writing & paperwork – it’s much easier to think after a day in the water than after a day in the office.

Also, I don’t have to maximize paper numbers and impacts – I can think about the science which interests me, not the science which sells well. I noticed that I have started thinking and reading about more fundamental questions again.

So, can I generally recommend to my academia-frustrated science colleagues (of which there are many!) to shout a loud “See you! Not.” towards the university administrators of the world? Not quite. I was in a slightly unusual situation when I left academia. In my 40s, I had no children to feed, and I am doing a kind of science which needs no armies of lab members, or expensive equipment. I also had qualifications outside of grant writing and paper publishing. A lot of people will have personal or scientific constrains which make a departure from academia incompatible with a continued involvement in science.

But I am also not the only one who can improvise. My situation was somewhat unusual, but not completely unique. Ex-experimentalists can collaborate with someone with a laboratory. Science friendly post-academia careers can be fund closer to home. A lesson from my adventures is that no one needs a university department’s administrator’s permission to do science. Thinking about the workings of nature is not a privilege granted by deanlets. If a scuba instructor in a remote part of a developing nation can do theoretical biology, then a science-trained programmer in Boston or management consultant in Munich can do their science, too. I think that a lot of scientists stick up with the well documented excesses of academic buerocrazy due to the perceived lack of alternatives. The realization that such alternatives exist, especially ones with a continued involvement in science, should also put university-employed scientists in a better bargaining position!