At the end of every teaching term I find myself in exactly the same place: burned out from rushing around, tired from marking, annoyed that I haven’t gotten more research done, even more annoyed that I haven’t taken more days off for myself, and already missing the day-to-day interaction with the students. I simultaneously want to crank up my research output and take some time to relax and unwind and think. Mostly that last part.
The latest issue of University Affairs, a magazine for Canadian academics, has a feature piece on the Slow Science movement. “What is the Slow Science movement?” you may well ask. I would probably trot out some cryptic platitude along the lines of “my dream, my refuge, my intellectual nirvana”. And then you would likely roll your eyes, sigh, and wait for my real answer. Fine.
The life of a Modern Academic moves at high speed. More rapid-fire communication, more administration, more interactions, more technology, more grant-writing, more networks, more software, more tools, more “professional development” (I hate that term), more long nights playing catch-up. We are almost constantly cajoled, implored or sometimes even required to use more technological tools in teaching, in interacting, in managing our research.
I sometimes feel like I’m just . . . going . . . to . . . snap. As it turns out, I’m not even remotely alone in feeling that way. The Slow Science Academy is based in Berlin, and I think their simple manifesto resonates with a lot of people who do science. People who, theoretically at least, are supposed to think for a living.
Slow Science is similar to other, better-known, flavours of the “slow” movement (Slow Food is probably the most familiar). Their main message? Good things take time. Quality takes time. Science takes time. Science is ideas, innovation, consideration, synthesis. Science is not a vending machine of simple solutions, brightly packaged answers, and 30-second sound bites. Scientists are increasingly expected to do lots and lots of things, but the one thing we have an increasingly difficult time doing is, simply, thinking.
There are times, more frequently now, when I just want to escape from technology and go somewhere to look at things and think about them. It’s where my ideas come from, it’s where my new research directions come from. If I can’t do that, how am I supposed to “innovate” anything? One of the most eloquent statements I know of a scientist’s need to take a break from technology sometimes and just go outside comes from Carlos Martinez del Rio, as part of the Natural Histories Project. Give it a listen here. That is why we need Slow Science every now and then.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m no Luddite. I like my computers and my iPhone and my lab gear a lot. They make my life easier and they make my career possible. But I also really like my paper notebooks and my pencils. And maybe a snack. Those are things I take with me when I want to go somewhere and think. Those are the things that help me be a better scientist. Slowly.