Is alternative plumbing needed for the ‘leaky pipeline’?

Last week I attended the ASAB spring conference in Durham. In addition to hearing about some great science and putting a chimp on trial, I was asked to be on a panel about alternative science careers. Of course, my current position as a postdoc is clearly not that ‘alternative’, but my route to where I am now, spending some time working in science communication, is not that common amongst early-career researchers. Other speakers on the panel had a variety of experience, working in the environmental, charitable and zoo sectors, which I hope gave valuable insights into what can be done with a background in ecology and animal behaviour.

I found it fascinating to listen to the stories of the other panellists and the reasons for their career choices, some carefully planned, others entirely serendipitous. We all demonstrated that the simple route up the academic ladder is not the only option. Also, as with many other sectors, you don’t have to have a set career for life, as long as you’re sensible a ‘portfolio career’ is perfectly possible. With the competition for academic jobs getting ever more fierce, this is a good thing. People with PhDs have a vast range of skills and knowledge that can be used in a whole variety of different sectors.

So, all very upbeat. Well, maybe not. One thing that struck me was the way many of us speakers presented our talks. ‘I failed to get a postdoc’. ‘I had to come up with something else to do’. ‘I needed a back-up plan’. The session at times seemed to resemble a group therapy session, because there still seems to be a deeply entrenched idea amongst academics that if you don’t go on to an academic career after your PhD you have failed.

This perception is apparent time and time again. From PhD supervisors who look down on the professional development courses put on for their students because ‘their time is better spent in the lab’ (an actual quotation from a committee meeting) to the ‘leaky pipeline’ metaphor (that some people have ‘leaked out’ of science) there is a group-think that academia is somehow the holy grail.

Why is this the case? I don’t see any of my friends who trained with large, professional firms and then transferred to different sectors worrying that they ‘couldn’t hack it’ with Deloitte or ‘didn’t make it’ at Unilever. They learned skills, they developed, they found a role that interested them and they moved on. They never sound ashamed of themselves. So why does this seem to persist in academia?

Maybe academia is different. At the age of eight I doubt anyone dreamed of being a management consultant, but then did any kid really dream of being a postdoctoral researcher? They may well have known that they were fascinated by science or animals, but that isn’t quite the same thing. Maybe the rewards of an academic career are different – there’s a personal, intrinsic reward that comes from advancing knowledge; but we’re not the only people in the world who get job satisfaction.

Why does it matter? There are plenty of people who have left academia and don’t apologise for their ‘alternative’ career. I worry that if there is a cultural group-think within the sector that people who have gone to do something else are slightly less worthy than those who stay, it becomes a self-perpetuating myth. Those people who want to take a path outside academia can feel awkward about discussing their options with their mentors and peers, and seeking the development opportunities that they need to advance their career. Of course a PhD is training for research and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise, but when someone takes that training and applies it in a new area that doesn’t discredit the system, it reinforces its worth.

Internships and research positions – valuable voluntary experience or cynical exploitation?

I am signed up to several mailing lists, related to different spheres of my professional life. Each usually contains announcements about events in the sector, discussions on relevant issues, and ‘job’ adverts. I put ‘job’ in inverted commas because plenty of those adverts are not seeking an employee, but instead a volunteer, an intern, ‘someone who wishes to gain experience’. Basically someone to do work, but not get paid.

However, there is a stark contrast between the different mailing lists. In science communication there appears to have been a marked trend away from the ‘volunteer internship’ position (at least, there has been a marked trend away from advertising these positions too widely). If such adverts do get posted on mailing lists, such as Psci-Com, debate rages, tempers fray and the moderator usually has to step in. The point from those who object is that this is exploitation clothed in the guise of assisting job prospects. If you have a job that needs doing, then you should pay someone a respectable wage to do it.

And who can really argue with this point? Someone is doing work for you. They should be paid. Internships are a really valuable way of gaining experience, but if you are getting the labour then why should it come free? It is good to see that there are plenty of organisations in science communication and policy that now offer paid internships. I am well aware that this solution is still not perfect (often wages are low and there are many people who cannot take advantage of short-term placements), but it seems that most in sector are taking the issue seriously.

And that’s where the contrast comes in. The other group of mailing lists that I am signed up to – those related to my research – are awash with adverts asking for volunteer research assistants. And the demands of these placements are sometimes astounding. Chester Zoo, for example, has a voluntary scheme aimed at recent graduates that runs for 10-12 months. That’s right, they want someone to forgo payment for an entire year to do admin in their science office.

A quick browse of the Primate Info Net jobs page reveals a host of field work positions, most of them research assistant placements in field sites around the world. (I am not going to single out a project, because most are posted by individual early-career researchers who don’t deserve someone ranting at them on the internet). Many of these placements ask volunteers to pay their own way – to foot the cost of the plane fare, transport in country, and food and living expenses – for the privilege of collecting data for someone else’s project.

Why does all of this matter? Volunteering provides a great service to many organisations and gives a great deal back to the people who choose to volunteer their time and skills. Valuable research projects, examining the ecology and behaviour of threatened species across the world would probably be completely financially untenable if they all had to pay the full costs of labour. These projects are often run on shoe-string budgets by incredibly dedicated people, working hard to conserve species and ecosystems. But are those acceptable arguments?

I am not entirely sure that they are. Experience of field work or research is often a prerequisite for those who want to go onto further study in the field. Conservation and education jobs are highly competitive; that extra experience on your CV could be the deciding factor. If there is blind acceptance that this free labour is fine, what does that mean for those people who can’t afford to pay for flights to another continent to go and collect data? Do they just have to find another area where experience is cheaper to gain?

I certainly don’t have the answer and I am not going to rush to judgement of the dedicated people trying to get their research or conservation projects done in tough circumstances. But I really hope that researchers and funders will start to question whether this is really the only model that they can use, whether they feel entirely happy with the situation, whether they are satisfied no one is exploited or discriminated against. I suspect some don’t care, but my hunch is that for many “oh that’s the way it has always worked” doesn’t sit quite right with them. I certainly hope it doesn’t.

Human rights for chimps?

Should chimps be freed from inappropriate, solitary housing as ‘pets’ or as entertainers? Should chimpanzees have human rights? These seem like two different questions, but they weren’t mutually exclusive in a court in New York state yesterday. Steve Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project are attempting to use human rights law to have a chimp, Tommy, removed from his owner and placed in a sanctuary.1

The Nonhuman Rights Project is arguing that members of other species should have legal rights such as bodily integrity and bodily liberty2. They argue that some non-human animals should stop being treated by law as ‘things’ and start to be recognised as ‘persons’. But if a chimpanzee gains human rights, can it do human ‘wrongs’?

Well, the first point to make here is that not all humans would be judged capable of committing a crime. In many jurisdictions there is an assumption that an individual must be capable of reasoning rationally and morally. Some individuals – such as young children or those with certain mental disabilities – are regarded as outside of this.3 Would a chimpanzee ever be capable of passing this test?

Over this summer, along with a range of wonderful, talented people, I have developed a show that is designed to examine this exact question. The scenario is simple enough – a chimp has killed another, something that we know chimpanzees do.4 The audience is the jury, academics are expert witnesses and a couple of us are the lawyers.

The topics are broad. We know that chimpanzees are a remarkable, intelligent and social species, but do chimps have cultural norms? Do they have morals? Do they view others as chimps like them or simply as other objects in the environment? The answers to these questions are complicated to answer because we can’t just ask a chimp what they think. They are also complex because different researchers interpret the results from their observations and experiments differently. Similarly, the questions and debates that the show raises from the jury and witnesses is also complex and change subtly each time we run it.

The issues above are, surely, the same ones that will feature in the judges’ decision making in Albany over the next few weeks. Is chimp cognition sufficiently similar to that of humans to be called a ‘person’? I am not sure of that we can show that it is. I can understand why the Nonhuman Rights Project have chosen to use human rights law and have invoked judgements that brought an end to slavery, but the question remains in my mind: why is there not an animal rights law to deal with this? How is it possible that a chimpanzee in America can be used in the entertainment industry and then discarded to a life of solitary confinement? That shouldn’t need a ‘human right’ to stop it; that should need common sense (and common law).

1 Accessed 9th October
2 Accessed 9th October
3Cubie A.M. (2010) Scots Criminal Law (Third Edition). Bloomsbury Professional, London
4 Wilson M.L. et al. Lethal aggression in Pan is better explained by adaptive strategies than human impacts. Nature, 513, 414-417