Cookie cutters; agility vs. rigidity; 2010 Canadian Science Policy Conference; Kate Pullinger GG 2009 award winner for fiction

Ever wonder about all that talk about critical thinking? Supposedly that’s what education does for you, i.e. encourages critical thinking. I mention it because there’s a great little essay on The Black Hole blog about critical thinking in higher education. It’s called, Science is like Baking: The Rise of the Cookie Cutter PhD. I did have one minor quibble,

Together, these forces do what I think we should be very very scared of… they apply pressure to churn out PhDs faster, with more papers, with less flexibility in ideas and more rigid (read publishable) research project designs. So, in the end, little effort goes into helping the PhD students think critically about their field – and while I don’t believe this style of training is as far gone in the Humanities… I think it’s coming, so get yourself ready!

Sadly, I believe that the process is already gaining momentum in the humanities.

Rob Annan at Don’t Leave Canada Behind has a very pointed (scathing) analysis of a pre-budget submission from the SSHRC/NSERC/CIHR tri-council to the House of Commons Standing Committee.  [SSHRC = Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council; NSERC = Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council; CHIR = Canadian Health Institutes Research] From his posting,

… What does this mean? Sounds to me like stable, long-term funding is to be sacrificed at the altar of increased flexibility. And what exactly is a “dynamic approach” to funding research? This bureaucratic nonsense speak could have real consequences for researchers. Does agility, dynamism, and responsiveness mean that the agencies will be rapidly changing funding priorities from year to year? Will the agencies just start chasing the hottest trends?

Annan’s concern about “agility, dynamism and responsiveness” as a funding agency priority would seem to contradict The Black Hole’s essayist’s concern “with more papers, with less flexibility in ideas and more rigid (read more publishable) research project designs.”

In fact, we could end up with a situation where both apply. Imagine this. (1) A researcher applies for a ‘trendy’ area of research thereby fulfilling the funding agency’s dynamic, responsive funding requirement. (2) The researcher or PhD student’s academic institution or employer constrains the researcher to pump out multiple papers from a rigid research design under the funding agency’s the rubric of being responsive and agile.

Frankly, I’d like to see a little more agility and dynamism but I’d like it see it applied effectively. Sadly, I believe that my little scenario is more likely than not. The funding agencies are scrambling for money and, with the best of intentions, will do what it takes to get more so they can fulfill their mandate of supporting research. Meanwhile, the academic institutions will pay lip service to agility and dynamism while they apply the principles of rigidity and conformity used in production lines to pump out more product (publishable papers, awards, etc.) so they can maintain themselves and provide (their raison d’etre) education.

On other notes: there is a 2010 Public Science in Canada | Strengthening Science and Policy to Protect Canadians conference coming up in May. The keynote speakers are Stephen Lewis in an as yet untitled talk and [David] Suzuki and [Preston] Manning on Science: A Public Dialogue.  (Is there a Canadian science conference or science event where Preston Manning isn’t giving a keynote address?) More details can be found here.

On a personal note, congratulations to the Governor General’s latest fiction award winner, Kate Pullinger for the Mistress of Nothing. She was one of the leaders and teachers in my master’s programme (Creative Writing and New Media) at De Montfort University in the UK. I’m grateful that I had a chance to study in the programme (which was canceled after its 3rd year). I was able to experiment with creative writing techniques and science writing and that was a privilege.

1 thought on “Cookie cutters; agility vs. rigidity; 2010 Canadian Science Policy Conference; Kate Pullinger GG 2009 award winner for fiction

  1. Pingback: Grey water and a short story from a GG winner « FrogHeart

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