Bye-bye, university! How to leave research and be perfectly happy

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 Imagine a university campus. Zoom your attention to one of the buildings. The, imagine a human figure running away from it, screaming while holding his head with his hands. Imagine him dashing out of the campus gate and disappearing in the fog, still running at full speed and screaming. That was me, leaving the University of Florence forever. I still had some time before mandatory retirement, but I couldn’t take it anymore. The Covid regulations were the killing blow to an institution that had already become a monstrosity. For what I can say, the university (and not just in Florence) has been completely zombified: it keeps marching onward, clumsily, in search of students’ brains to devour (if any are left).  

To explain why I ran away from my job, screaming, I should tell you how it is to work in a mid-level university, such as the University of Florence. Of course, the definition of “mid-level” depends on the parameters used, but the University of Florence is normally ranked somewhere within the first 500 universities worldwide. This is not so bad considering that there are tens of thousands of institutions in the world that label themselves as “universities.” But it is surely nothing to be enthusiastic about. 

Is it a bad thing to work in a mid-level university? No. Not at all. I have experience working in other universities, including some top-level ones (just to name one, I was a post-doc at Berkeley). I can tell you that I don’t regret the 40 years of my career in Florence. True, in a higher-level university I could have had a higher salary, more support, and more chances to attract financing. But also more stress, more pressure, and more control. 

So, I don’t envy the life of the colleagues who have been running the rat race. The beauty of a mid-level university is that, as a researcher, you are not so heavily pressured. That gives you a chance to explore new fields. Not that it is easy, anywhere. The way scientific research is organized nowadays implies discouraging interdisciplinary and innovative research. Actually, not just discouraging — the whole system is aimed at carpet bombing with napalm everything and everyone who tries to do something new. But, with a certain degree of madness combined with strategical planning, sometimes you can beat the system at its own game. You can change your field of research! 

You have to be careful: when you switch fields, initially, the number of citations of your work will plummet, and you’ll struggle to see your articles published in the best journals. To say nothing about being an outsider in the competition for financing in a system dominated by old boy networks. And if your university decides to evaluate your performance while you are stuck in the middle of two fields, you risk being fired. It has happened to people I know, in the US. In the less competitive environment of a mid-level university, you risk much less. So, I changed my research field at least three times while in Florence: it was a long road to go from surface chemistry (where I started) to socio-economic modeling (where I am). Maybe I could have done the same in the US, but I am sure it would have been much more difficult. 

To be clear, this is not a hymn to mediocrity. Being in a mid-level university does not mean you can’t do top-level work. By all means, you can, and you should. True, you don’t have the same kind of financial support you can have in the top scientific watering holes, but you can compensate with creativity and flexibility. As an example, the Chemistry Department of the University of Florence, where I was working up to a few months ago, scores consistently as the best Department of Chemistry in Italy, and it is at the top level worldwide in several fields. It has done so well, I think, because researchers were left mostly free to organize their work and to pursue the lines they thought were most rewarding. I noticed the same thing in Russian research institutes. As long as they didn’t use the Western “bibliometric indexes,” they were staffed with truly outstanding researchers. Now that they are using the indices, they are drifting toward Western-style mediocrity. 

So, what led me to run away screaming from a structure that I considered not so bad? In one word: bureaucracy. It has been a slow trend but, year after year, bureaucrats had been penetrating more and more into the organization of research. We were asked to list our “products” (the name that bureaucrats give to scientific papers) and to declare our bibliometric indices. Also, bureaucracy was taking a larger and larger toll on the university budget; the number of administrative employees kept increasing and the salary of a top bureaucrat became higher than that of a senior faculty member: that was the unavoidable result of administrators deciding on their own salaries. Eventually, the administrative director could fire the rector (not officially, but it happened). All that is not just a problem with the University of Florence, it is the same in all the universities of the world. They are all becoming more and more like zombies dedicated to eating the brains of students (assuming that they can find any).

The final nail in the coffin was the pandemic. It gave bureaucrats the possibility of scoring an epochal victory on faculty members. Truly, it was not just a victory, it was the complete annihilation of the enemy. Before the pandemic, the university was still a relatively open institution, where I was free to go anywhere on our campus and to receive anyone in my room. I could invite anyone to give a talk, from Italy or abroad. I could invite researchers from anywhere to work in my group. My students could visit me at any time, and the door of my office was always open. 

All that was vaporized by the regulations: a garden of delights for bureaucrats. The new rules were typically based on no data, but they were always strict, detailed, and enforceable at will by a body of guardians assembled for the purpose. In some places, the safe distance was 1 m, in others, it was 1.8 m. The floors of the aisles were painted with red and yellow lines that people had to follow when walking around. No more than two people were allowed in the same room, but sometimes three. If I wanted to receive a colleague or a student in my office, I had to ask permission from the director of the department at least 24 hours in advance, and explain why I wanted to receive that person and for how long. Organizing an international conference became a nightmare — we just couldn’t do that anymore. To enter our department, we were tested, sanitized, masked, QR-ed, and our body temperature measured. You see in the figure one of the infernal machines that had appeared at the entrances of all the university buildings. It was correctly referred to as a “totem” — an offering to evil deities. And no more socializing with your colleagues and students. Eating or drinking on the premises was strictly forbidden — even the coffee machines in the corridors disappeared. 

But that was nothing in comparison to what happened to teaching. For most people, a chemistry class is similar to a session with your dentist: you want it to be over as soon as possible. Yet, before the pandemic, lessons could be interactive, lively, and — as much as possible — interesting. You dealt with real human beings sitting in front of you, and you could discuss matters even not strictly related to the subject of your class. 

All that disappeared in a whooshing sound with the pandemic. Suddenly, the students were turned from human beings into stamp-size images on a screen. And that was when they agreed to show their faces. Sometimes they refused to, saying that they didn’t have a camera, that it didn’t work, or that they just didn’t want to be bothered. And you couldn’t force them. You had no idea if they were listening to you or playing games, or watching movies on their screens. Even worse was the “mixed” mode that appeared in 2021. A few students could reserve a seat in the classroom, each set spaced from the next one by two unoccupied ones. The majority would remain in remote mode, and you had exactly zero interaction with them — you had no idea of who was listening to you if any did. Those sitting in the classroom had to be masked all the time — no exceptions allowed. A colleague of mine in another Italian university was suspended without pay for one year for having told her students on a hot day that they could lower their masks if they wanted. 

What was most shocking about the story is how my colleagues took this bureaucratic storm. No protests, no questions, no discussions. I mean, we are a department of chemistry (supposedly) staffed with top-level scientists: someone could have asked questions about why exactly some rules were enacted: what proof do you have that washing your hands with a poisonous concoction has any useful effect? On which basis were we forbidden to touch a piece of paper previously handed by a student? What proof do you have that staying at 1 meter from each other prevents infection? But no rule was criticized, no matter how quixotic. Administrators, and even many faculty members, were enthusiastic about the new rules. As in the Milgram experiment, they were given a chance to abuse their colleagues by taking formal or informal roles of guardians of the heavenly palace, and they took it gleefully. Before the pandemic, the lady at the reception desk was always smiling and kind. Afterward, she became something akin to a prison guard, even though she wasn’t wearing a uniform. I have been a guest researcher at the Academy of Sciences in Moscow, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, and I can tell you that the guards at the entrance were more friendly. 

I don’t remember what exactly was the last straw, but at some moment I found myself packing. Books, papers, pictures, equipment, and various stuff accumulated in forty years. Of my books, I donated some 350 of them to our library. The librarians were moderately happy to receive that gift, but they (and I) are perfectly aware that our students are becoming unable to understand English, so most of these books will just collect dust until they will be consumed in some fire at the end of our civilization. But so is life. In the picture, you can see me in the inner caverns of the library, with the books I laboriously carried there. 

And now what? Initially, I was a little afraid. Mandatory retirement in Europe is a terrible experience for the people who are forced to retire while still active and perfectly able to do their job. It is another evil deed of bureaucrats. But, in my case, I have to thank the small peduncled creature that made me hate my job enough that I ran away screaming. I can tell you that I am not feeling anything like the “retirement shock” that killed some of my colleagues. No kidding: they fell sick and died shortly after retiring. And they were in perfect health before. 

So, right now, I am in perfect shape, and I am wondering how I could have managed to do all the things I have been doing during the past few months if I had had to do the things I had to do as a faculty member. Teaching, filling forms, attending meetings, be part of committees. All that is over — God, you really love me!!! I can spend all my time doing the things I love to do. Like spending an inordinate amount of time writing blog posts on the “Seneca Effect” blog. But not just that. Science can be a lot of fun when you are not pressured by review committees and funding agencies (see below). And I am working on some weird things I won’t tell you anything about. 

Hard times seem to be coming, but we have to accept what the universe has prepared for us. And so, the future is waiting for us. Who knows what expects us once we’ll be there?

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Fun with science

Science used to be something done just for the sake of learning new things, and I think it can still be done in this spirit — especially after having run away screaming from your research job. Check our paper (with Ilaria Perissi) on the “6th law of stupidity” and you’ll see what I mean. Of course, the reviewers were horrified by a paper that was not boring. But, eventually, we overcame their criticism with good arguments and persistence. We (with Ilaria and others) also published a paper on dragonology (yes, the scince of dragons). 

Another paper written with Ilaria was inspired by Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” novel. We described how the cycle of whaling of 19th century is an example of the overexploitation of natural resources. It is a dynamical cycle that we simulated using a boardgame for educational purposes. (the paper is under review, an earlier version called the “Oil Game” can be found on “Academy.org”). 

We are now (again, with Ilaria) world-renown experts on mousetraps as related to nuclear explosions (the paper is on Arxiv, we have a full paper under review). In the picture, you see a mouse I captured recently. Don’t worry, the little fella was not mistreated. It was released, alive and well, in a place where I am sure it can find food. 

You think all this is not serious science? Well, if you want serious science, here is serious science, at least in terms of words full of sound and fury: “The Role of Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROI) in Complex Adaptive Systems” (Perissi, Lavacchi, and Bardi). But it was fun to study this subject, even though we wrote the paper in a rather boring form, full of mathematical formulas. 

By the way, if you dabble with EROI-related things, you know that the “Hubbert Curve” is the result of the declining EROI of oil extraction. And you may have asked yourself (but never dared to ask) what is the value of the EROI at “peak oil.” Well, you won’t find that datum anywhere, but we (again, I and Ilaria) know! The paper is being prepared, and the mystery will be revealed soon. And there is more in the pipeline, including a long paper on the concept of “social holobionts” — halfway through it, right now. Onward, fellow holobionts!

Originally appeared on The Seneca Effect Read More

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