Sabrina Maniscalco

Sabrina Maniscalco

I have always loved mathematics. When I was young it was simply a funny game, but later in high school, when I started to study physics, I was incredibly fascinated by the fact that mathematics is the language we use to describe Nature.

The choice to study Physics at the University and then continue with a PhD was simply the only thing I could imagine doing. I am indeed one of the lucky people who found their dream job early and I still remember very vividly my excitement when I started to do research for my master thesis. Doing research was and still is for me some sort of detective game: searching the literature, learning new mathematical tools, connecting the dots, discussing with colleagues, and finally discovering something new, something nobody has thought before, something that helps, even if a tiny little bit, to understand better the Universe in which we live. What more, with time research became funnier and funnier as my basic knowledge of the literature widened and I became more and more familiar with the tools used to do the job.

Despite the usual difficulties of the academic career, I managed to continue working in the field I liked the most, that is quantum physics, first as a postdoc and then as a professor. As in all jobs there have been, of course, moments of difficulties, ups and downs, times in which I thought to give up and get “a normal job”. But as a matter of fact I have never questioned the fact that this was what I really wanted to do. And then at some point the “transition” happened, a smooth passage from the job I loved the most, that is doing research, to a situation in which the majority of my work-time is spent writing grant application, managing grants, writing grant reports, taking care of the budgets, doing administrative work related to the projects, and teaching. I also travel a lot to go to conferences and present the results that my students and postdocs have obtained, still with my help and supervision, for which, however, I have less and less time.

What I just told you perfectly fits into the picture drawn in an article recently appeared in the Proceedings  of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) [Donald Geman and Stuart Geman, PNAS, 113,  9384–9387 (2016)]. The authors write: “At the top research Universities, scientists are hired, paid and promoted primarily based on their degree of exposure often measured by the sheer size of the vita listing all publications, conferences attended or organised, talks given, proposals submitted or funded, and so forth. The response of the scientific community to the changing performance metrics has been entirely rational: We spend much of our time taking “professional selfies” (…). At the same time, there is hugely increased pressure to secure outside funding, converting most of our best scientists into government contractors.”

The article carries forward an important and controversial point, which in my opinion deserves to be carefully discussed in all academic institution in order to understand how to take action against a much worrying tendency. It is argued that a change in the day-to-day behaviour of scientists has occurred in the last decades, “ partly driven by new technology which affects everyone, and partly driven by an alteration in the system of rewards and incentives. (…). As a result, Academia has become a small-idea factory. (…). The incentives for exploring truly novel ideas have practically disappeared. All this favours incremental advances, and young scientists contend that being original is just too risky.”

We need to re-think the way to measure reward and begin a serious discussion on the fundamental changes that universities and government agencies must undertake to reduce hyper-competition and encourage risk-taking and creative thinking. It is impossible to make long-term plans in a situation in which research is only funded through short-term projects and not supported via long-term investments on young researchers’ career. I see the discontent of most of my colleagues and I know, at the same time, that this issue is starting to be discussed in some Universities. But we do need facts, not just words.

All in all, I am an optimist, and I wish to believe that, despite the current tendency, before I retire I will be able to start enjoying my dream job, that is doing research, again.

Sabrina Maniscalco
theoretical physics

Photo: Hanna Oksanen