Young scientists need telework, not travel

The World View page in the 19 June 2014 Nature is titled: “Uprooting researchers can drive them out of science.” A key statement in the article by Russell Garwood of the University of Manchester, UK, is:

If they wish, researchers can now communicate more often, and just as easily, with colleagues in a different time zone than with those in the next office.

That’s the problem. The management techniques of science were developed in the time when scientists necessarily worked together in the same laboratory. Although the technology has changed, apparently the management attitudes have not.

First a quick history refresher. Teleworking had its greatest boost when the Internet appeared. The Internet arose from the 1970s  ARPANET program sponsored by the US Defense Advanced Projects Agency (DARPA) focused on enabling easy communications among American scientists working at different universities. The military objective of the program was, by developing  a very flexible telecommunications network, to protect the nation from disruption in case of a nuclear attack.

Four decades later the existence of these easy communications has changed the nature of scientific research. It is now possible for scientists from different regions of  a country, or even from different countries, to collaborate on complex research projects. Often this collaboration occurs without the scientists ever meeting each other face to face. Yet the older managers of research teams often go by the rules of the 20th century: one must work face to face with co-researchers in order to progress successfully. Furthermore, budding scientists are expected to move from university to university (or research lab to research lab) every few years. As society has become more complex these attitudes are causing problems.

In particular, young scientists object to the culture that requires those frequent changes in job location. The stress of moving themselves — and their young families and co-breadwinners — every few years is causing potential career scientists to rethink their objectives, according to the article. Consequently, the world is in danger of losing promising young scientists at a time when they are most needed. Garwood’s comment: “. . . in 2014, the physical location of a laboratory is less important than the speed of its Internet connection” strikes at the heart of the matter. Many scientists need to telework both in order to progress and to have a satisfying life style. Given that, they don’t necessarily needs to relocate every few years.

People, is it possible that the dilemma of young scientists versus the establishment might apply to non-scientists as well? Could teleworking be used in other organizations, not just those employing the scientific elite?

Time will tell. Assuming we have enough time left before Ma Nature decides for us.

2 thoughts on “Young scientists need telework, not travel”

  1. Ironically, I found this entry by searching telework jobs for professionals working in the space industry. I am one of many young scientists and engineers that are frustrated with the constant relocating that’s mandatory to progress in your field strictly because there has not been any advancement in the mentality of managers. In most technical jobs I’ve held I have worked with countless introverted individuals that worked better when left alone. Also, they were way more responsive via email than conversations. In most cases, I was able to be more productive when collaborating with them via email because I could be more direct and have no need to make any additional/unnecessary conversation with them and the 10 other people I passed in the office and hallway walking to/from their desk. As I transition to the civilian life after serving several years in the Air Force it is very frustrating to learn that the number of telework jobs offered to engineers in the aerospace or space fields are extremely limited. I have moved several times and uprooted my daughter in the process while in the military. I thought life would be more stable outside of the military but without managers accepting the fact that productivity is not measured by seeing an employee in an office then I guess I’ll have to accept the fact that my prediction was very wrong.

    -Frustrated & Lacking Stability

  2. Part of the problem in the space industry is the security issue. It’s possible to work on classified projects from a home base but approval requires a long and arduous process with the Department of Defense. So employers tend to automatically refuse to allow teleworking because of this hassle factor. This is one of the reasons I moved from the space industry to academia in order to start my research on telecommuting.
    On the other hand, NASA-related installations/companies may not have such military security issues. So then it’s back down to their management culture, in which case I recommend hiring on as an in-office worker with the option to test telecommuting with them after a trial period of a few months. Good scientists/engineers are still hard to find. Once you’re found to be indispensable management attitudes will change.

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