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I’m a bit of a pedant when it comes to some things. I detest dangling participles, I become annoyed at misuse of the semi-colon, and I find words used as “shorthand” for much larger, broader concepts are irksome. One of the most personally egregious examples of this is the binning of anyone doing scientific research into the category of “academic”. It’s very meaning – an adjective describing those things pertaining to the academy – betrays its exclusion of those who are not part of the academy, sensu stricto. Like me.

I work for an NGO, a charity, an organization that by its very definition is non-academic. Some have dubbed this “alt-ac” (short for alternative academic), but even this moniker posits, implicitly, that one could reasonably be called an academic, rather than a researcher, scholar, scientist, or artist. I think many people are scientists, and many in science (and more narrowly the scientific academy) often forget that those non-academic, non-professorial positions exist, particularly when they opine on the challenges of grant writing, student supervision, collaborative work, or scientific (not academic!!) publishing. As a non-academic scientist, I do all these things, too.

Stephen Heard, on Scientist Sees Squirrel, recently wrote about what he dubbed “Academic Inclusive Fitness” – those aspects of his job that ultimately contribute to his professional legacy (akin to the survival of his genetic diversity in others, such as nieces, nephews, or siblings), but appear altruistic on the surface. Reviewing papers, being an editor at a journal, serving on graduate student committees (mine included!), serving in organizational administrative positions, and publishing his much anticipated book on scientific writing* are all activities that have the potential to decrease direct research output (the metric, deeply flawed, that is often used to measure scientific “production”)

In his post, Steve related an anecdote about a non-academic asking who his boss was, which is not a straightforward question for an academic to answer. Herein lies one of the biggest differences between academic and non-academic science. I have a boss. And she has a boss, and so does he. I can draw a solid line from the staff I supervise right up to the Chief Executive with ease. It was the same when I worked at Environment Canada, in the Canadian federal government. I am, ultimately, responsible to someone else in the organization for certain projects, and my research is guided, or even dictated by the organization’s research needs, agenda, and priorities.

While this might rub some the wrong way, it’s how just about every job outside academic research operates. Organizations have a mandate, and its employees work toward the goals within that remit. Academics, however, have a tenuous balancing act between the demands of their organization (teaching, administration), and their own requirements (research), though there can obviously be varying degrees of overlap.

So my first suggestion is, rather than talk about “Academic Inclusive Fitness”, consider “Scientific Inclusive Fitness” as a broader term that encompasses the entire research community.

This raises, though, some particular challenges for those of us “on the outside”, so to speak. While I’m pretty lucky, and can undertake some of these seemingly altruistic tasks, others may not be in the same situation. The result is that much of this ends up being done outside “normal work”, which often means weekends, evenings, or early mornings. This poses several problems for those who can’t (or chose not to) do this “non-work work” on, essentially, their own time. I’m under no illusion that many academics don’t face the same pressures, but when one already has a 40-hour work week, yet is still expected by the broader scientific community to chip in, it can be trying.

Which brings me to Amy Parachnowitsch’s post on Small Pond Science about how we define “work”, and the problems of “carry-over” from one position to the next. Like the activities that contribute to Scientific Inclusive Fitness, it can be challenging for non-academics (and indeed academics!) to find time to wrap up projects from their previous positions. As Amy put it on Twitter, the system works (relatively well) when everyone is in the system, but when someone leaves, it becomes very hard. This could be a student leaving research after their degree, or someone getting off at a different stop along the career subway, including leaving academic while remaining a scientist. Often it’s this past work, and activities that might contribute to “Scientific Inclusive Fitness” that get dropped.

In the end, it all comes down to expectations – both our own, and those we have of our colleagues, applicants, students, collaborators, and friends. And recognizing that non-academic scientists face many of the same challenges as our academic brethren, but also some challenges that academics may not necessarily think of. Which can be problematic when we are all assessed, judged, or evaluated against criteria driven by academia.

One day, I may end up in a university, being an academic, but that’s just a job title, not a career.


*I received no commission for this mention, though am open to negotiation when the royalties start piling in. What about financial inclusive fitness? Steve, you know where to find me.