What is this Thing Called Academic Freedom?

This post comes out of my discussion last week with Salt Miner and another one of my readers who we will call “DC Refugee” (waves!).

One of the criticisms I have heard before about my departure from academia is that I have lost my academic freedom. There is this idea that working in a company or, really anywhere outside of academia will result in no longer being free to pursue whatever intellectual interests I might have. If I am working outside of the academy, that means that I am working for someone who will tell me what to do and I can’t just work on what I want to work on.

To first order approximation, I will admit that there is some truth to this statement. SOME. For example, now that I am working as a data scientist in Silicon Valley, I cannot just go off and try out some crazy new nuclear-related technique on the company’s dime. So yes, I have lost that bit. Maybe to some readers that might seem like more than a “bit.” But let’s look at the other side and ask what does academic freedom really look like?

I used to have that “freedom.” What did it mean? I was free to go off and do whatever research I wanted, it is true. But my employment prospects were based on me picking the “right” research to do. What determines what research falls into that category? I think the easy way is to ask the following questions (ordered in the priority of your average R1 institution):

  1. Will this line of research land me funding? A lot of funding?
  2. Will I be able to publish this research? In more than one paper? In high impact journals?
  3. Will I be able to recruit and retain a graduate student to do a PhD on this subject? Will I be able to get them through that PhD? Will I be able to recruit more than one PhD student?

You could also argue that the research might not be immediately “good,” but might result in things on the service side of academic work that would be worthwhile, such as editorships in the “right” journals, leadership roles in planning the “right” conferences, etc.

Now here is the bitch of it. ALL of my research was funded by the US Federal Government. It is very hard as a single professor to sway the funding priorities of the goverment. Government funding priorities change, whether we like it or not. Types of research can go out of funding vogue very quickly. And it just could be that the one bit of research you think you want to do based on your academic freedom is not something that you will likely find funding for, as tragic as that may be!

If you don’t have #1, it is very hard to pay for #3. Sure, you can probably get a student or two paid for as a teaching assistant. But those jobs are both hard (it is like having a second job to your first job – that of getting your PhD thesis done) and not very stable. TA slots are not guaranteed. So the smart grad student (the kind you want anyway) will likely not take a TA position if they can be a research assistant somewhere else. Retention is a problem. And then there is the fact that professors, especially ones early in their careers, should not be writing the papers themselves. They should be having their graduate students write them. So now we don’t have #2 either since without funding we cannot afford those good grad students.

OK…money reigns supreme. No surprise, right? That freedom you thought you had only goes so far!

Now let’s return to where I am working in industry. No, I cannot work on just anything. It needs to be relevant to the needs and goals of the company. The good news here is that I picked a company whose mission and purpose I believe in. It just so happens that the things I want to work on for this company are aligned with their long-term interests as well.
So gee, I am getting to work on the things I want to work on just by having the virtue of having been picky when I selected a company to work for. Huh.

Again, tell me what academic freedom is and why I am somehow missing it?

Written on February 15, 2018