The Cooler: Is ‘Slow Science’ Bad for Developing Countries?

May 10, 2013

Image credit: Chris Devers/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

Welcome to The Coolerwhere we note interesting links and developments in conservation, science and conservation science. Suggestions welcome.

Bob Lalasz is The Nature Conservancy’s director of science communications. 

Who could be against “Slow Science”? Isn’t that just another way of saying “science”?

Well, there’s the slowness of science (the glacial pace of peer review, journal editors, grant proposals, not to mention the actual research and writing and wrangling of co-authors).

And then there’s…Slow Science.

An offshoot of the fast-growing Slow Movement — which has brought us Slow Food, Slow Art, Slow Travel, Slow Parenting, Slow Consulting, SlowTime®, Slow Fashion and Slow Software Development, among so many other manifestations — Slow Science has been a semi-branded concept since 2010, when it was announced by the Berlin-based group Slow Science Academy on a web page that is simplicity itself.

The Academy’s manifesto begins: “We are scientists. We don’t blog. We don’t twitter. We take our time.” (In the next paragraph, they admit that they “say yes” to blogging, as well as “the accelerated science of the early 21st century.” They also have a Facebook page.)

Still, they have a serious point: that “science needs time.” Or, as the Facebook page puts it:

“[Slow Science] is based on the belief that science should be a slow, steady, methodical process, and that scientists should not be expected to provide ‘quick fixes’ to society’s problems. Slow Science supports curiosity-driven scientific research and opposes performance targets.”

The devil driving science to haste, according to a “Slow Science Workshop” held in Brussels this March, is its preoccupation with marketable findings.

“Science has come to be seen mainly as a purveyor of technological innovation and increased competitiveness on a globalized market,” the workshop’s web page reads. “This shift not only restricts the choice of research topics and curricula but also threatens the quality of knowledge.” (A lament that Fischer, Ritchie and Hanspach published last year in TREE made ecology labs sounds like sweatshops.)

It’s no surprise that Slow Science was born in Europe, where big lab groups and research consortia have become the rule and young researchers get caught in a spin cycle of endless postdocs, frantically pumping up their publication numbers in order to impress hiring committees.

But is Slow the correct pace for the rest of the world’s scientists? No, says a provocative new essay by Rafael Loyola in In fact, it’s dangerous for the careers of developing country researchers.

Loyola, head of the Conservation Biogeography Lab and a professor at Brazil’s Federal University of Goiás, argues that publishing more and more quickly has many benefits. It increases your visibility as a researcher, brings more opportunity for collaboration, and ultimately allows you to raise more money for research — all qualities that are at a premium for scientists in the Global South.

So he urges his colleagues to be as fruitful as they can. And it makes for better science, he says: Pressure to publish more has actually increased the quality of papers — not just in his lab, but at a national scale, in Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Mexico and China.

Lesson? Perhaps, as with the Slow Food movement itself, the seemingly attractive values of Slow Science — more time for curiosity, conversation, savoring and potential failure — are based on assumptions and privileges that are by no means universal or universally relevant.

Some Slow Foodists — such as Michael Pollan — have been criticized for advocating the reintroduction of traditional gender roles under the flag of locavore aesthetics. So is Slow Science just snobbery by a different name?

What do you think? Let us know in the comments below.

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  1. What is science? What is its purpose?

    Albert Einstein: His nanny called him The Slow one when he was young”

    Thomas Edison: “His headmaster called him Slow”

    The difference between Slow science and fast science:

    “There is a difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something” Richard Feynmann