Will the scientific community develop itself into a clique?

I‘ve finished reading “Autonomous” by Annalee Newitz. Not everything in “Autonomous” made me nod in agreement. But it triggered so many memories. I had difficulties to write them coherently down.

This science-fiction piece actually depicts a not so distant future, telling the story of a former academician, who turned into a drug dealer. The second storyline unfolds around a police officer and his robot assistant.

A new Hollywood

The author captured, maybe unwillingly, the bitterness of an academic career. The book somehow emphasizes that doing science is no more a job, it’s a privilege. The science is no more a collective pursuit for knowledge, but a colorful patchwork of personal struggles. Those, who have their own fate in their hands, have to be quite selfish.

Even nowadays, you cannot just stay on the academic path without climbing on top. You go up or go out. It is fixed in the academic contracts. A few people allowed to contribute without racing toward a nicer title or a new degree, or another publication in a famous journal.

For instance, the book poses a problem of hunting for scientific grants vs. doing research that can bring benefits to the whole of mankind. As a colleague of mine said, “Somebody has to pay for it”. “Autonomous” shows how people turn away from research topics that do not bring money or can harm their reputation.

Earning you a reputation is another thing that many become very focused on.

“A star postdoc”, says Newitz about a character in her book. Yes, that is how it felt. People are forced to become some sort of celebrities. There is no collective drive than, only personal attempts to reach the sky.

Party-goers

I was first distracted by Newitz’s idea of the future biotech industry as a collection of ever partying people. I used to know a few Russian-speaking people working in one of the German biotech research institutes.

I attended Friday’s beer hour, which took place every week. Of course, it ended up in more than one hour.

The reason, why parties were so popular is that biotechnologist is a rare specialty. The institute hired people from all over the world to cover its research ambitions.

In the end, they got many nationalities living far away from home. Some would stay at the institute just a couple of years, with no time to learn German and get into the city’s social circles. So, as an employer, you do not just provide your folks with a job, you need to give them a social life too. That’s why the beer hour.

Newitz draws an almost scaring picture of drugged scientists partying all the time and taking more drugs to stay awake. I hope that it is not going to be that way.

“We” and “they”

The author does not give away the secrets of a successful academic career. At least, not directly. She only depicts a few thoughts of her main hero, who envies another colleague and her smooth academic CV, full of publications in the best journals. The main hero is too much concerned about helping average people that she misses one by one her chances for advancing toward the top of the ladder.

Nonetheless, when the heroine needs support and asylum, her academic friends rush to give it to her. As a reader, you start to think, the storyline takes a positive turn toward her long-awaited come-back. But something on an emotional level says that it’s not going to happen.

Newitz transmits a feeling of being a part of some special community that talks in a foreign, for the most average people not comprehensive, language. This leaves a mixed impression of belonging, but also of a seclusion and otherness. “Clique” seems the right word for it.

A short afterword

I closed the book and wanted more of it. “Autonomous” is one of those writings that briefly sketches a social tension without proceeding on it. It feels like an abstract painting that you look at and clearly recognize what it is about. Still, the painting keeps only a very few essential lines and shapes and colors. It is complete, but has an open end.

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