Academic inclusive fitness

Photo: Belding’s ground squirrel, by Yathin S Krishnappa via wikimedia.org; CC BY-SA 3.0.

I think I’m typical as a scientist in that I spend a lot of time doing things that don’t seem to add to my research productivity – in fact, they take away from it. Yesterday (as I write) I gave a guest lecture about writing in somebody else’s grad course. I review manuscripts and grants, serve as an Associate Editor, sit on grad student supervisory committees, consult with colleagues about stats, serve in academic administration, and on and on. Actually, our whole academic system depends on us doing these kinds of things – things that (at least on the surface) seem altruistic. For an evolutionary biologist, apparent altruism always raises a question: Why? Why do academics do things that seem to benefit others, not themselves? There may be a variety of reasons, but increasingly I’ve come to understand my own career as heavily influenced by academic inclusive fitness.

Ground squirrels (like Belding’s ground squirrel, Urocitellus beldingi, pictured) seem altruistic, too. When a squirrel sights a predator, it gives an alarm call, to which other squirrels respond by freezing or ducking into their burrows. But why call? Calling seems costly in two ways: first, the caller may attract predator attention, and second, by making other individuals less vulnerable, calling increases the probability that the caller is the predator’s best target. But we understand this as an example of evolution via inclusive fitness: a gene coding for calling behaviour is favoured even though it causes risk for its bearer, because calling protects gene copies present in other individuals in the colony. What seems like altruism, if you do the accounting right, is actually just a more integrative way of a squirrel optimizing production of descendant genes.

Academic inclusive fitness works the same way, except that rather than tracking gene copies contributed to the next generation, I track (conceptually, at least) new findings contributed to our body of science. I take time to review manuscripts, teach grad students about writing, and so on because I see the results of that: science done by others that’s better for my involvement. I took satisfaction from serving as Department Chair and as acting Dean of Science because I saw young scientists I hired and mentored publishing papers they might not have published without me. On a smaller scale, I’ve sat on a couple of grad-student committees where I’m quite sure that without my efforts, the students would have sunk in the rough water of difficult projects and difficult supervisors*. Their papers are, at least inside my own head, my papers too, although you won’t see my name on them.

Maybe the most obvious example of my (intended) academic inclusive fitness is my writing book**, The Scientist’s Guide to Writing. Imagine that this book sells 2,000 copies (half its print run), and let’s imagine that a quarter of its purchasers actually find it useful. Imagine further that as a result, each of them writes just one additional paper (on average, over their career; if an average career is 50-100 papers, this is only a 1-2% increase in their productivity). The academic inclusive fitness accruing to me from this: five hundred papers. Five hundred! For comparison, I’ll likely publish about 100 of my own before I retire. Even my not-very-ambitious calculation suggests that three years writing a book could give me an inclusive-fitness contribution to science far bigger than my entire career’s direct contribution.

This inclusive-fitness thinking is why I (and I think many of my colleagues) do all those things I’ve mentioned: why we review, and edit, and mentor, and so on. But the calculation in my last paragraph pushes me towards a conclusion I’d never conceived of, and that I find quite shocking. If it’s anywhere close to correct, I could make a far bigger contribution to science by quitting my own research and spending all my time on the “altruistic” stuff***. Wow.

But I’m not going to act on that conclusion. I’m going to keep doing my own research. Why? Because as much as I take satisfaction from my academic inclusive fitness – from seeing others do science because I’ve helped – there’s one thing I don’t get from that. It’s the single thing I love most about doing science, and I explained it this way in a post arguing that I Have the Best Job on the Entire Planet:

…[Every now and again] I realize that I understand something about the way the universe works that nobody else in human history has ever understood before. Think about that: I’m a biologist, and at that moment, I know something about biology that Darwin didn’t know, that Hutchinson and MacArthur didn’t know, that Crick and Franklin didn’t know… That thing that I, uniquely, understand may not be momentous – I’ve yet to discover a Grand Unified Theory – but at that moment I’m the only one who understands it, or ever has. It’s hard to express just how exhilarating this is.

So, like most of my mid- to late-career colleagues, I’m going to keep doing a lot of apparently altruistic things; and I’ll take satisfaction in the academic inclusive fitness they bring. But I’m too selfish to go all the way. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some data to analyze – my own data. I’ll get to reviewing your manuscript tomorrow.

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) January 26, 2016

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*^This sounds a bit arrogant as I read it back to myself, but it’s true. You wouldn’t believe a couple of the situations I’ve been recruited to help with. Or maybe you would.

**^I know, I mention this a lot. But look: I spent three years writing it – living it, really. I’m going to keep bringing it up.

***^You may doubt my calculation. I certainly do. But even if it’s too high by a factor of 10, my point stands, and that’s a bit scary.

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12 thoughts on “Academic inclusive fitness

  1. Tony Diamond

    I’m not sure your alternative approach to AIF (Academic Inclusive Fitness) – that is, stop publishing yourself – is a credible alternative strategy (despite the math), because if you did so, your invitations to review MSS and proposals would soon dry up. This would reduce your academic inclusive fitness, would it not?

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  2. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

    Tony – yes, good point. After all, one’s ability to do these AIF-incurring activities depends on one having a reputation as an actual scientist! Phew – there’s another good reason I won’t just hang up the pipettor. Well, the metaphorical pipettor.

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  3. Jeremy Kerr

    Great post! And GREAT talk yesterday. The department is buzzing with appreciation.

    It’s funny how careers work. After spending – literally – decades in training and the practice of science, the result is the realization that there might be better ways to spend our time.

    What does that mean? It depends on the subjective interpretation of “better”. Many of my most senior colleagues and friends have spent entire careers in the pursuit of research excellence with no signs of slowing down. The impacts of such endeavours can be massive and change fields of research permanently. Whether those research impacts are large or small, being a professor can give people the privilege of spending professional lives indulging their personal sense of wonder at each moment of discovery. I guess that life-long, perpetually renewable joy in the next discovery – however fleeting – must be really important for those folks. I hope I’m lucky enough always to have that feeling too.

    It is hard to imagine your terrific book (I mean it – it’s great) being possible without having spent many years building a reputation for excellence and slaving away at the next writing challenge, and the next, and the next…. Excellence in research and in its publication probably made it possible to a) write a book about writing that is worth reading, and b) for you to be taken seriously enough for others to take the time to actually do so.

    This kind of contribution will increase your inclusive fitness. By precisely how much? The number is like the biblical “40 days and 40 nights.” It might be 50 extra papers, or it might be 500. It might also be a lot bigger than either of those. I think you’re right: the number is proportionally large in comparison with the number of papers you might write yourself. And of those 50 or 500 or 5000 extra papers, a few might be really inspiring. It’s not just the number that matters.

    The realization that this kind of inclusive fitness-raising contribution – whether in the form of books or policy contributions – might be more important than the work that enabled such a contribution is…. a little uncomfortable. We should all be so lucky as to have to come to terms with such a moment. But continuously pursuing discovery and the wonder it brings serves this purpose too: as a foundation for other kinds of sustained contributions that are not about personal fulfilment but about doing something for others. That’s “important”.

    I’m betting your book will be important. Whether you can measure it or not, writing the thing was time well spent. Now, all you have to do is convince the NSERC EG of that… 😉

    -JTK, Ottawa

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  4. Alex Bond

    One point to raise is that not all scientists are academics. There are many of us in government, industry, consulting, NGOs, etc. that rely on the same outputs for career progression / evaluation by the broader scientific community. But unlike you, I have a “boss” – the head of my research section, and often these aspects that could contribute to what I would suggest be called “scientific inclusive fitness” happen outside the remit of my regular work. Amy Parachnowitsch also wrote this week on Small Pond Science about the challenges of defining “work”, and how many things that are expected of scientists are done on our own time, or at best on the fringes (https://scientistseessquirrel.wordpress.com/2016/01/26/academic-inclusive-fitness/) This presents many problems for those who can’t accommodate this extra-curricular activity

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks, Alex – a really good point I hadn’t thought of when I wrote. In-university academia is a very odd thing, in some ways, and it’s easy to forget how odd when you see it from the inside! In my experience, government and NGO academics vary a lot in how much their managers understand and appreciate inclusive fitness. Someone who knows more about this (hint hint) should write a post about it.

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  6. Terry McGlynn

    The idea of focusing on supporting others, instead of prioritizing one’s own authorship, is a classic issue in academic small ponds. Many faculty members at small liberal arts colleges and public regional universities have a low publication rate, but indubitably are responsible for a huge amount of science though academic inclusive fitness. This role might be undervalued in the community, or maybe not, but it’s definitely undercredited and does not garner adequately proportional professional recognition. I don’t feel that I’m personally getting the short stick with respect to my own research, but a lot of my colleagues have a massive academic indirect fitness and in the scientific community itself, this isn’t recognized enough.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Terry – that’s a good point, and a different (and complementary) perspective. I’m senior enough that I really don’t need to worry about future evaluations, and I have enough research time that I’ve been successful enough (for me) at granting. As a result, I have the huge luxury of not worrying much about whether or how other people recognize my academic inclusive fitness. Instead, I think about (and wrote about) how I recognize my academic inclusive fitness, in a job-satisfaction sort of way. Your perspective is probably the more important one, and it’s certainly the more difficult one to figure out! Thanks for commenting.

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