Shifting gears: in praise of slow science

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 hereThat is why we need Slow Science every now and then.

Practicing slow science, southern Appalachians, 2008

Practicing slow science, southern Appalachians, 2008

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.


About terry wheeler

professor, museum director, entomologist, ecologist, naturalist
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7 Responses to Shifting gears: in praise of slow science

  1. Thank you for this. You may already have seen this, but David Levy has done some interesting thinking about the “no time to think” culture of academia. Reclaiming mental space is especially important, I think, for students who are learning the habits of a lifetime in college. What are we modeling for them?

  2. Thanks for posting the link to that David Levy piece. It’s a good, and important, read. You make an excellent point about the message we must be sending to our students. More than one of my own students have told me that looking at my workload makes them think twice about a career in academia, and that is NOT a message I want to send. This is why I really, REALLY value fieldwork so highly – it not only gives me data, it gives me electricity-free time to think. And time spent in the field with my students has a very different quality than time spent running up and down the hallway.

  3. Peter Hodum says:

    Terry- Thanks for such an insightful piece. I share your frustrations with the speed at which we are now expected to do everything, including think reflectively about our work, its implications, and future directions. I treasure my field time for precisely the reasons that you articulate in your post- through immersion in my research and the sense of place I derive from it, I am able to let the external distractions and demands settle out. Thanks, too, for sharing the link to the Slow Science organization.

    • Thanks, Peter. Feeling that sense of place, along with a sense of our own place IN that place is, I think, especially important for those who do fieldwork. And it helps a lot of the data make a lot more sense.

  4. Not that it provides any comfort, but I’m glad to see the problem haunts academic researchers and industry researchers alike. The pace these days is simply frenetic! I’ve had a big upturn in the amount of time I spend in the field lately – a bit backwards from the normal pattern of decreasing field time with advancing years in a position. Quite frankly, I’m glad – in the field (or traveling to and from) I can actually think. I come back to the office ready to go (and hoping I can get it all done before I need to go back out to the field the next week!).

    • True, Ted, I think we’re more fortunate than many people in that we CAN spend time in the field as part of our jobs. And it’s reassuring to see the field time going up (or at least staying level) instead of down as time goes by. There’s nothing like a day in boots to help us reboot before heading back to the desk.

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