• The ivory tower is somewhat of a prison

    I was planning to write a whole post on starchy vegetables and the senate, but after reading Austin’s earlier post in my hotel room, I decided to go another way. I want to talk about the ivory tower.

    The article he cites shows that papers do respond to real-world conditions. That’s great. I often hear from those who work outside the academic world as to how we inside that world dont understand real-world problems or address them in a timely manner. I do my best to rebut this claim, but we all know there’s a bit of truth to that. But do you think that’s I like it that way? I so wish it were otherwise.

    The problem is that the “ivory tower” prevents us from doing it any other way. If you listened to our podcast on doing research, you’d understand why.

    Let’s say that I see a problem in the real world. Let’s pretend it has something to do with insurance. I want to see if I can answer some question about it that will help inform policy makers, or make things better. I need a grant to do the research, of course, since no one pays me to sit around waiting for problems to solve. If I’m truly lucky, I’ve already got some pilot data around, so I don’t need to spend 6 months doing some preliminary work to prove to others that the problem exists. But it will still likely take me a couple of months to get the grant ready to send off. Then, six months later it gets reviewed. Money for research is so tight, though, that’s it’s almost guaranteed that I won’t get it on the first try. So three months later, the council will inform me I need to revise and resubmit (I hope – half of grants aren’t even scored). So three months later I meet the deadline and resubmit. Six months later they review it again. Three months later they give me the funding.

    Time from noticing the problem to getting the money I need to do the research? Two years. That’s if I’m lucky.

    Now I need to do the actual work. It wasn’t a huge grant, or a huge project, so let’s say it takes a year. Then I write it up, and submit it to a journal. They take three months to review, and tell me that it’s not timely or on point or who knows what else. So I re-submit it to a different journal. This time, three months later, they take it.

    Again, that’s if I’m lucky. And super-duper fast. Most times it takes way longer to write up the work and get it accepted.

    Next, they put it into the publication queue. In the medical literature, say 6 months. So a year after I submit it for the first time, it sees the light of day.

    Two years to fund. One year to do. One year to publish. Four years from my noticing the problem to saying anything real about it. I’ve missed an entire Presidency, let alone two sessions of Congress. And that’s (once more with feeling) if I’m lucky. Almost all real work will take much longer.

    I would love to be more relevant in my research. But the way we do such work in this country doesn’t allow it. That’s the ivory tower we’ve built. In an ideal world, I’d see a problem, take some money out of my “bank”, do the work immediately, and release it out there for you to see. But that would require massive amounts of hard money and would violate the tenets of peer-review. I could go work in a think tank, but those are usually ideological, and I want to avoid that.

    So I have two choices. The first is to get someone to endow me so that I could stop spending so much time trying to fund me and my people. Unfortunately, no one has yet volunteered the millions and millions of dollars that would require. The other is to just own the problem, and find a work-around. Maybe I could look for problems in real time, search for research that already exists, and try to present it in such a way that policy makers, journalists, and the general public can make more informed decisions about health policy.

    In other words, I could blog. Like I’m doing right now.

    I get that this isn’t considered “academic work” under the traditional definition. I get that some don’t consider it serious. I get that it’s unlikely to advance my real job and that’s it’s a huge time sink sometimes. But it’s my personal way of breaking through that ivory tower and contributing something to the real world. It’s a small crack, but I’m trying to reach you through it. It would be great if we figured out a way to make it bigger.

    Or, of course, one of our mega-rich readers could decide I’m worth endowing. That would work, too.

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    • Think tanks and academia are not the only choices. I regularly spend time on work that is not billable, but is research to solve a specific problem, with hope that I can come up with a solution that can be sold later. It doesn’t always work out as intended, but it often does. And the ultimate goal (getting paid for it) ensures that I’m focused on something that is a legitimate solution to a real world problem, rather than just something I might have found interesting.