A lesson I took from ancient Romans and The Terminator

By Scott Olesen

A few months ago, I told my advisor about my planned path to graduation. One paper on this, one paper on that, and a third paper about this other thing—that makes a thesis. “You will certainly have enough stuff to graduate,” he told me. “Now you should start thinking about doing the project that will get you your faculty job.”

I had a short celebration—I was going to graduate someday!—but then I thought: the things I had been doing were just “stuff”. If I’m going to pursue a faculty job, I want my research to be a clear and present benefit to society, so I heard my advisor’s words as an exhortation to do more than stuff papers into a thesis. I suffered a small crisis of faith. A political hack is someone who works in the public sphere but is motivated by selfish goals. Had I become a scientific hack? If so, how could I have avoided this foray into hackery?

I thought about the history of hack prevention (“prophyl(h)ac(k)tics”?). Thomas Jefferson once suggested that Virginia state senators be limited to a single term. If re-election were possible, state senators “would be casting their eye forward to the period of election (however distant) and be currying favor with the electors…” A single term would keep senators focused on governance rather than re-election.

Jefferson greatly admired the Romans, including the quasi-legendary Cincinnatus, whose story probably figured into Jefferson’s idea about term limits. Early in its history, Rome fought many wars against other Italian tribes. Cincinnatus, who had formerly held the highest Roman political office, was on his farm when a military disaster struck. The Senate appointed him dictator, a position of nearly unlimited power, for six months so he could resolve the crisis. A delegation went to Cincinnatus’s farm and told him about the Senate’s decision. He stopped hoeing and called to his wife Racilia for his toga, the appropriate dress for a man in a position of power. In the version where Cincinnatus is played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, he declares, “Racilia. Fetch me my toga. And my can of whoop-ass.” Fifteen days later, after opening said can, the disaster was resolved, enemy armies were utterly defeated, and Cincinnatus, rather than riding out the six months of power his position allowed, resigned and returned to his farm.

In light of Cincinnatus’s story, Jefferson’s plan sounds like a good idea. Why shouldn’t our Congresspeople take up the toga for a short time, execute the electorate’s mandate, and then go home? If Congresspeople spend about half of their time preparing for re-election, then a one-term limit would make them—by my naïve calculus—twice as effective.

I felt pretty good about myself for having this opinion until I had the “stuff” conversation. The disgust I felt for my self-diagnosed scientific hackhood motivated me to think about more challenging projects. I’m now tempted to tell more junior grads to focus only on challenging, obvious-good-for-the-world projects, but I’m not sure if I could have come to this attitude without having heard “you have enough stuff”. I would truly be a hack if I told people to get down to work when I’m the one who needed an assured re-election before feeling confident enough to try and smash Rome’s enemies.

In a recent Science editorial, the journal’s editor-in-chief suggests that “[t]here has been too much emphasis on bibliometric measures” when evaluating young scientists for grants. “What if, instead, we assess young scientists according to their willingness to take risks, ability to work as part of a diverse team, creativity in complex problem-solving, and work ethic?” It’s foolish to believe science can be a perfect meritocracy, but I think the changing face of the journal and the paper is a glimpse into a brighter future with less hand-wringing over h-indices and more doling out of whoop-ass.