Professoriblogissa otetaan kantaa yliopistojen ja tutkimuslaitosten ajankohtaisiin asioihin.

19.9.2017

All academic careers end in failure

'All political careers end in failure', a famous remark attributed (*) to the controversial British politician J. Enoch Powell (1912-1998), could equally well be applied in academia.

As someone who has definitely entered the final quartile of his academic career, it is of course a sobering thought that ahead of me lies an increasingly futile struggle to justify and verify my conclusions and interpretations, which are inevitably going to be challenged by new findings, obtained using cleaner, more valid and sophisticated techniques of the future.

Powell himself was unusual in many respects. Not only did he wilfully destroy his own political career, by placing himself at odds with his party and with mainstream opinion on a succession of crucial issues, fuelling major public controversies which still smoulder on today. He was also a brilliant scholar in his own right, becoming a full professor of classics at the University of Sydney, Australia, at the age of 25. However, his academic career abruptly ended with the outbreak of war, during which he moved into military intelligence work and thence into politics.

Whilst I have no plans to enter either of these realms, and disagree with Powell's expressed views on just about everything, his observation about the course of 'careers of influence' rings very true. I also find it rather disheartening that so few scholars can bring themselves to admit, let alone rejoice in, this inevitable truth.

Many of the most reputed scholars of the past century, including, for example, Einstein, or Watson and Crick, made their landmark discoveries at an early age, then spent the remainder of their careers searching for new insights that never really came. Whilst there are many who retire or pass on in a glorious shower of medals, festschrift symposia, testimonials or obituaries that can read like a mini-review of an entire field, their work almost always goes stale within a few years or decades, even if they are fondly or respectfully remembered by their former students and colleagues.

But our role in elucidating what the universe is made of and how it works should not be measured on some scale of scientific correctness. Rather, we should be recognized for how much we encouraged and stimulated open debate and developed novel ideas that could be tested to destruction experimentally, whether now or in the far future. We should all take pride in contributing to this process, whether we are eventually proven right or wrong.

(*) The actual quote, in Powell's biography of Joseph Chamberlain, differs slightly from this much rehashed phrase.

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