June 15th, 2018 | The Tragedy of Commons

The tragedy of commons

The Tragedy of Commons

Every neuroscientist goes through a few phases on their path toward growing a happy research life. At first, there is an initial period of fascination with brain research as such. Everything seems exciting at that point: every piece of information, every new study, every new research idea. And, hanging out with all these intelligent people solving fundamental problems feels like you have just won your life; like you were in the womb, developing yourself in the best possible way.  

After this initial stage, in a few months to a few years later, the inflow of dopamine usually gets weaker, and the sense of excitation fades away, killed by the everyday routine. The initial feeling of unconditional love towards research is confronted with a range of duties, a sense of solitude, high expectations, and everyday grind, as research takes only a small portion of working time. Finally, there comes the enlightenment: academia is yet an institution wrapped around science. And to some young researchers, it becomes impossible to digest some of the rules in the game of grants and papers.

Many young researchers experience an identity crisis at this stage, and ask themselves the question: is research life good for me? Some researchers can overcome everyday inconveniences while others disappear from academia for good – with a deep feeling of relief. So, how to develop self-motivation to stay?

There are a few pieces of advice often given to young researchers to help them foster their passion and motivation in academia. The first popular strategy involves developing a second passion outside academia. By engaging yourself in another activity after working hours, you can switch your brain off from solving complex research problems and rest while involving yourself in another activity that also helps you develop as a person. That hobby might be anything, from travelling, dancing, sports, and arts, through charity work, to develop financial independence through entrepreneurship and investments in the stock exchange or real estate.

Another commonly practised remedy for everyday frustration is sharing your everyday problems and dilemmas with peer students and mentors who could guide you through your scientific career. Indeed, it is a good practice to unload frustrations on a daily basis, as soon as they arrive – without waiting until you are overwhelmed and burned out. Lastly, what is often advised as an anti-frustration pill, is taking care of yourself: monitoring your mood, eating and sleeping well, taking proper vacations, engaging in relaxing activities, etc.

One factor that all these strategies have in common though is the assumption that satisfaction from work is each researcher’s personal responsibility: everyone needs to take an active effort to maintain their happiness, and if everyone took care of their personal happiness better, academia would be a better place.

The year 2009 was groundbreaking, for at least two separate reasons. Firstly, on January 3rd of 2009, the genesis block of bitcoin was mined. Secondly, on October 12th of 2009, Elinor Claire “Lin” Ostrom has become the first woman awarded a Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, “for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons”. The clue of this work is a phenomenon known in the economy as the tragedy of commons. This phenomenon occurs when a group shares a resource, but at the same time, every individual acts on their own behalf, which is often against the common interest of the community.

For instance, in China, there is still a preference to have a son over a daughter (for economic reasons), and the abortion of female fetuses has led to a severe gender imbalance in the whole population. Another example is the economically incentivized pollution of the environment by private companies, which causes a deep global ecological degradation. Yet another example is the overuse of antibiotics which causes increased susceptibility to bacterial infections in the whole population. One could multiply examples of the tragedy of commons occurring in many societies.

Do we have a tragedy of commons in academia? In a way, yes, we do. What is academia, actually? It is, beyond any doubt, a common resource; a platform on which researchers are able to define and execute scientific projects. As a shared resource, this platform needs to be a clean, friendly and collaborative place. But at the same time, academia is constructed in a way that, if you intend to stay for longer, you need to be competitive as there are not enough seats for everyone on the high levels of the ladder.

This requirement generates an intrinsic conflict of interest and often pushes researchers to make self-oriented career choices in which the happiness of others is neglected. As a result, it is easy to cross the red line beyond which a scientific environment becomes a toxic place polluted with personal aversion, biased peer review, and employment process, ignorance and avoiding responsibility for projects and students. In such conditions, motivation strategies oriented at growing motivation from the inside, can only soothe the consequences of the problem, and not solve the problem itself. So, is there any possible remedy to this issue?

In her pioneering work, Elinor conducted field studies on how different societies develop rules for managing natural resources in order to avoid resource exploitation. In particular, she conducted studies on the management of irrigation systems in Nepal and pastures in Africa.

To briefly summarize her findings, in order to be successful, care for the commons needs to be a common task for the whole community, organized and constrained by the culture. Even though sharing resources is based on trust, Ostrom formalized principles which are, according to her research, absolutely necessary for effective management of the commons in every community. Firstly, in order to achieve effective management of the common resource, the rules for managing the resource need to be clearly defined.

All the decisions with respect to the resource should be taken through a collective agreement, and there should be public awareness in the community of these rules. The rules should be adapted to local conditions, to optimize the overall performance. Furthermore, the resource should also be monitored, and some sanctions for those who violate the rules need to be defined and executed. Lastly, there should be clear rules for fast, easy-access conflict resolution.

How do these principles relate to academia? First of all, talking about burnout and lack of motivation still remains taboo. This differs between cultures, and in general, in some areas of the world, it is more accepted and regulated than in other cultures.

For instance, in the Netherlands, the institution of paid sick leave exists while in some other countries, such as the US, it does not. Also, most contracts are fixed with respect to the research topic and the supervision panel. Of course, over the course of a few years of a PhD, many things can go differently than expected, yet typically, there are no clear rules for fast and easy-access conflict resolution.

Then, in case the projects go in an unexpected direction – either for the reason that the project turns out to be impossible or because of the personality mismatch between the team members – the person whose well-being is hammered the most, is always the early career researcher. Lastly, there is still no public awareness that happiness in the working environment is in the best interest of everyone, and in most cases, no sanctions are taken if a given person has a bad record of their workers’ satisfaction over a prolonged period of time.

To end with, a little food for thought. Harvard University and Stanford University have recently made it to the top 20 in America’s Best Employers ranking AD 2018. The question remains: is this accidental that the universities that treat their workers best, also happen to perform the highest quality research?

Please cite as:

Bielczyk, N. (2018, June 15th). The Tragedy of Commons? Retrieved from https://nataliabielczyk.com/the-tragedy-of-commons

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If you would like to read more about careers (for PhDs and other white-collar professionals) and effective strategies to self-navigate in the job market, please also take a look at the blog of my company, Ontology of Value where I write posts dedicated to these topics.

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