The Threat to Academia

I've seen the enemy of Academia and it's itself. The times they are a'changing. Science and Academia have have an astonishing progress for centuries. The reason is that the method works. It works probably better than anything else you can think of to produce knowledge. What is the method? First of all it consist of people, people doing things. These people are talented and intelligent, what they do is have conversations.

The people come to academia not for money, but for knowledge and also for something else. An environment with freedom to discuss and create. An environment where their special characteristics and quirks are respected. Where they don't have to dress or talk in a special way. Where they can express themselves with freedom. What they do is talk freely about ideas and criticize others ideas. This they do through papers which is in danger of changing right under Academia's imaginary feet. This method work but it is in danger right now. Knowledge production have change venues and style several times during history. From the Academies of Greece, to the freedom of the Muslims, to the secrecy of the Monks and the Church. Each style, each venue have though of itself as definite. Each has disappear...

The danger is that something has changed. It used to be that the special people that went to Academia went there because it was the best place to do what they wanted. They didn't wanted to dress in a particular way or to talk in the way demanded at a corporation. They wanted to create freely, without constrains. But we are witnessing the end of business-as-usual. Corporations are realizing that they are just fictions and that their only reality is the people that work for them. And that has change the kind of people they want. It used to be that they wanted conformists, people who could adapt to a certain set of regulations. Now they want creative people, exactly the kind that would normally go to academia.

In order to get them they are offering something more than money (that would not work). They are offering an environment where they can express themselves and have freedom. Look at the number of science Ph.D.s working for Microsoft. Or the number of companies that were born inside academia like Netscape or Sun. Even companies whose first purpose is to serve academia, like Wolfram Research, eventually diversifies and find ways to use their talents in other markets.

Academia's reaction to this have been to restrict the freedom and the job possibilities for young people. Some in Academia believe they have freedom or an easy life because of tenure. But they are much less free than the creative people working at some of this companies. They have a lot of pressure to do things they wouldn't do otherwise, like publish a zillion papers per year or teach a lot of classes. I get sad when an established mathematician tells me he/she can't travel because of teaching duties. New Ph.D.s in Math have have the worst decade in the job search front... On top of that is the infighting, the injustices, the back-stabbing...

I am currently in a leave of absence from IVIC and working at I think I will say goodbye to my job in Academia very soon. I am happier working outside of it. Don't get me wrong I still like math and I still intend to solve the invariant subspace problem. My papers will appear mostly on the web. I believe science will continue to get done and will continue its progress, the question is where. I bid adieu to academia with a stern warning. You are in dire straits, react or die.

 Update: A friend (Juan Rivero) read this and commented that this happens when economic times are good and stops happening when the economic outlook turns sour. I think he is right. Oh, well...

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Last Modified: April 4, 2000