Impact and its impact

What is it with science these days that it is such a quest for impact? Has it always been this way?

The first thing my new employer said when I started working for him and we had briefly discussed some experimental ideas that I had was ‘This will be great, I think it has Nature potential’. Yeah, sure, I just started my first postdoc in your lab, why don’t you put some extra fucking pressure on me, a person that was outspoken utterly confused and lost. Now, more than one year later, having released some steam, having found some more clarity, and certainly a lot less lost, I sometimes think back about that early statement. ‘I think it has Nature potential’. I can’t help but think it. What a ridiculous thing to say about an experiment that has not been designed yet. What a ridiculous thing to say, ten months before the experiment would even start. What a proposterous thing to say about 99.9% of ecological experiments. How many greenhouse or climate chamber experiments end up on Nature? I have been part of some manuscripts that were sent to Nature or Science, but the outcome has always been consistent. You don’t have to be a genius to see that the Nature potential was utter nonsense.

So, I designed my experiment. I have since also performed the experiment. I have stressed about it in so many ways, largely because of the high expectations that were somehow put on my shoulders. From the moment it truly started, I also greatly enjoyed it, together with ‘my’ team. In fact, really getting to know the team and their strengths and weaknesses was probably the best part of the process. I have just recently analyzed the collected ecological data. Do I think this was a good experiment? Yes, this is probably one of my better experiments, and the design is rock-solid. Do I think the results are good? Yup! I do. I think they are very nice, and reveal some very interesting patterns that partly confirmed my hypotheses (perhaps more on the story some time soon). Do I think they are worthy of Nature? YES! Do I think it has Nature potential? Hell no! Who would I be kidding. My gut feeling says the data and story line fit well with Proceedings B, which is an excellent journal with a broad readership. I would be very happy if it would end up there. Although I am in the process of arranging further molecular/gene expression analyses for my experimental plants that are now chilling at -80, which may provide mechanistic explanations that may increase the story ‘value’… It is still not Nature.

I pursued the academic path, because I just want to know about how plants and insects interact, and how the environment may affect this. I don’t care if it ends up in Nature. Nature stresses me out. My higher impact papers all have given me sleepless nights. Sleepless nights suck. I want to sleep like a baby!

Did all these stressful times produce fantastic work? I don’t know.

I am probably most proud of a paper from my master’s that I published in Ecological Entomology (arguably quite a few steps below Nature, but an excellent entomological journal). It is not a fantastic paper, but it was the first one that I wrote entirely by myself. It describes temporal and spatial effects on communities of hyperparasitoids – parasitic wasps specializing in parasitizing other species of parasitic wasps – that parasitize the pupae of the parasitoid Cotesia glomerata. The design was stupid and simple, but the work was a massive undertaking and the model system was wonderful to work with. I managed to get it past four reviewers! Low impact, very high satisfaction. This is the stupid kind of impactless stuff that I want to do.

The tiny wingless cryptine ichneumonid Gelis proximus. This species was one of about ten species (mostly Cryptinae) that commonly parasitized the cocoons. It was always more abundant on the ground level, as it does not have wings and therefore rarely searches for hosts in higher vegetation.

Yet, academia doesn’t care what you find interesting anymore. It has become this ruthless system where you can only succeed if you publish high impact, write and land grants. You need to have this kind of mindset, to be able to perform in this environment. So you have to pursue what’s huge, global, has impact, etcetera.

Basically, it is very hard to succeed if you’re not a heavily narcissistic asshole. Maybe I’m just giving myself too many pats on the back here, but I believe I am (still) a nice guy… However, I also feel that my personality is changing because I am part of the system.

Am I alone in this?

Published by Robin Heinen

Father of two | Husband | Entomologist and Ecologist | Postdoctoral Researcher @ TUM | Traveler | Coffee Addict

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