whatever it takes?

The 2014 Australian Football League (AFL) season begins this coming week and, as everyone who grows up in Melbourne knows, it’s obligatory to support one of the local teams. My team was Essendon. My dad barracked for Essendon and so did 4 of my siblings. On the other side was Richmond, supported by my mum and 3 siblings. Uncanny. That distribution is almost genetic. Except for one brother – he supported Collingwood. (There’s always one).

I used the phrase “my team was Essendon” on purpose above, rather than “my team is Essendon”. As of last year I no longer support them. Why? Because they took their slogan “whatever it takes” far too literally. The team injected players with substances that may or may not have been banned, may or may not have been performance-enhancing and which possibly had not been tested in humans before. Apparently no-one can be too sure of any of these things, because Essendon FC couldn’t provide detailed records as to what was injected, when it was injected, or where the injected substance was sourced from.

Ethics approval? Duty of care? Health and safety of players? Apparently these didn’t matter. “Whatever it takes” was the Essendon slogan and “whatever it takes to win” the message. Essendon FC was rightly stripped of premiership points by the AFL and didn’t take part in the 2013 finals series. The Essendon coach, a former golden-haired boy from his playing days, was fined and banned from coaching for a year. The only redeeming feature if any, was that the team self-reported its use of “supplements” to the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority and the AFL early in 2013 when it became concerned that perhaps this wasn’t doing the right thing by the players or the game.

When does “whatever it takes” cross the line? When does it no longer fit with an individual’s moral and ethical standpoint? For me, the Essendon supplements program did cross the line of what was morally and ethically acceptable. So I walked away from my team.

By this stage, you are probably wondering to yourself, what does this have to do with women in academia?

The thing is, I was reminded of the slogan “whatever it takes” and therefore the “Essendon supplements” saga by several posts I’ve read over the past few weeks.

One was Athene Donald’s post what does it take to get to the top where Athene reflected on what is valued in academia, what is not valued, and how we need to change the status quo. On reading through interviews with successful women at Cambridge, Athene noted “I was particularly struck by the person who said she didn’t care about the publication of a paper in a high impact factor journal as much as she cared that no one felt trampled on in order to achieve it; or the person who valued empathy and communication over a dictatorial attitude.

These are opinions I share, and I am sure many other academics share them too. Yet, there are many highly successful academics who do trample, and who don’t value empathy and communication. Because, well “whatever it takes”.

The second post that got me thinking about “whatever it takes” was my re-reading of why women leave academia by another of my favourite bloggers, Curt Rice. This 2012 post focused on a report on why female chemistry PhD students leave academia in greater numbers than male PhD students. Cited by the students themselves were reasons of poor job security, the intensely competitive nature of academia combined with a lack of self-confidence, and being told specifically that “they would encounter problems simply because they were women“. What stood out particularly for me on re-reading was this comment “Successful female professors are perceived by female PhD candidates as displaying masculine characteristics, such as aggression and competitiveness, and they were often childless”.

In any setting, it’s important to be true to yourself, to your own code of ethics and your own dreams and plans for the future. When it comes to a career in academia, most of us choose this path because we are curious about our world, driven by the thrill of discovery in research and the joy of training the next generation. Research is fun. At least it is when you start out. We don’t realise often until it is too late that success in academia is measured by specific numerical indicators – number of papers, number of papers in high impact factor journals, number of first author papers, citations to papers, etc etc etc. All of these can be manipulated if you are so inclined. You can push your way onto papers that perhaps you shouldn’t be an author on. You can argue why you shouldn’t share the first authorship with someone else. You can harangue editors of high impact factor journals to send your paper out for review. You can even turn up on the editor’s doorstep to argue face-to-face why your paper is so much more important than any other. You can treat your PhD students like so much cannon fodder, requiring more and more hours of work, till they reach the point of mental and physical exhaustion, and sometimes worse. You can even manipulate or fabricate scientific data to get that big paper. It happens. “Whatever it takes”.

Academia, particularly academic research, is a career that generally comes with poor pay, long hours, insecure prospects and regular if not frequent relocations often to different continents (Australia, UK, Australia, US, Australia for me). This lifestyle clearly impacts on family life, yet many continue to pursue an academic career despite these downsides because of the other side of the coin: because research and discovery is fun, addictive even. And for me personally, there are the major attractions of working with an amazing team of clever young people, and collaborating with awe-inspiring thinkers that I trust, respect and like. But “whatever it takes”? No time for anything else? Trampling on others? Dictatorial attitudes? Aggression? Intimidation? Sexism? Harrassment? Discrimination?

At some point personal scientific success, with the emphasis on “whatever it takes”, is simply not worth it. It will cross the line of what a good, bright, young researcher considers acceptable. They will choose to walk away. As Athene Donald and colleagues have pointed out, this situation is wasting much of our best talent. We need to stop rewarding selfishness, and start valuing other measures of success. We need to promote leadership traits that foster cooperation and collaboration, that support our best and brightest into careers in science without asking them to give up everything else in order to succeed.

We could even look to Essendon FC’s original motto for guidance:

Suaviter in modo; fortiter in re – gentle in manner; resolute in action.

That’s not a bad motto to live by in academia or sport. You never know, perhaps Essendon FC might consider using it again, and then I might consider supporting them again. Either that or I will have to start following Richmond FC. After all, it’s in the genes – and Richmond is a progressive team, recently appointing the first woman President of any AFL club.

Go Tiges?

6 thoughts on “whatever it takes?

  1. Excellent post. Really enjoyed reading it.

    I have a tiny quibble with the view that selfishness is rewarded. The problem is more that selfishness tends to be ignored when it should be punished.

  2. Interesting. See some more thoughtful comments by Randy Schekman in his Preface to the
    Annual Review of Cell and Developmental Biology, Vol. 29. DOI: 10.1146/annurev-cb-29-092513-100001
    He provides suggestion about how to counteract concerns that Impact Factors are inappropriately used to measure scientific merit.

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