Sunday, March 9, 2014

Academia and the equations of power

When I joined academia there was something I considered obvious: that at least in an academic environment, questions of fairness would be settled by taking the facts (and only the facts) into consideration. After all this is supposed to be how we do science. If a scientist argued that his papers were correct and those of his rivals wrong just because he was a Head of Department and the rival was merely a postdoctoral fellow, we would all have a good laugh. At least in any institution of a decent standing.

My illusions were challenged during my term as a postdoctoral fellow. A senior faculty member (call him F1) in my department tried to convince me of his new theory about a very old question of basic physics: if you cover a glass full of water with a card and turn it upside down, why does the card not fall? His theory, which didn't sound right to me (because it wasn't), even had an experimental prediction: he claimed that the card only stays in place if the glass is cylindrical or has a narrower base and wider top. If the glass has a wide base and narrow top, he claimed, the card would fall. Then with an impish grin he said "let me put you up to date with the experimental situation. A colleague (faculty member F2) has done the experiment at home and it confirms my theory". I tried to explain my approach and why I disagreed, but could not exactly put my finger on the error in F1's explanation because he was doing things a different way (i.e. trying to balance forces instead of pressures) which I found more complicated and less intuitive. I should mention here that F1 was an academically honest person and his attitude during the debate with me was respectful and courteous throughout.

Just then, F2 walked in along with a very senior colleague, F3. F1 looked at them and said "Sunil here disagrees with us". Their attitude was quite different from that of F1. With a visible sneer, one of them said, as if I wasn't even there: "Oh, he disagrees?" and the other looked at me patronisingly and said "ha ha, you're wrong, I've already done the experiment". They then proceeded to try and intimidate me with all kinds of irrelevant questions. I was the only one in the room without a permanent job and F2 and F3 were using this fact, rather than science, to win the argument. But then a funny thing happened. F1, who had been staring at the blackboard, had an illumination. He suddenly started making changes to his original diagram to incorporate some force arrows he had left out, and concluded that I was right! This left F2 and F3 in a rather embarrasing position and they left the room with ill grace. For what it's worth, I repeated the experiment later on at home and got the obvious result (the effect doesn't depend on the shape of the glass).

Years later, by which time I was a senior faculty member, an issue came up involving the unfair negative grading of a junior administrative staff member by his immediate superior, resulting in a memo being issued. A meeting was called involving the Director, Deans and a few senior faculty wherein I explained the facts and argued that the negative grading should be reversed and the memo withdrawn. No one disputed the facts I had presented, but apparently they all found it less clear what to do. The Registrar, a person who managed to be obtuse about everything except power equations, had the cheek to say "it will send the wrong signal, that any administrative staff member can get a memo against him cancelled if he is friends with Sunil Mukhi". I spluttered but was asked by my faculty colleagues to be patient. Then, without actually saying so, they quietly did the calculation: in terms of power and authority I was outdone by the others in the room, both in numbers and seniority. So there was no need to change anything. However as I was angry and showing signs of getting more so, and also happened to be correct (none of these distinguished scientists expressed any disagreement about the facts of the case) it was decided to withdraw the memo on a pure technicality. To my knowledge it still sits in the file of this person, marked "cancelled" for a technical reason, but still full of venom about a completely innocent person penned by his incompetent superior out of spite. He never got any letter saying the memo stood withdrawn (had he asked for one, he would have got another memo for being cheeky). The spiteful superior was never disciplined.

Readers of this blog, if any, will argue that none of these cases is surprising in the Indian context. They are, if anything, rather mild (the postdoc got a faculty job, the memo got cancelled). Which is why I decided to put down the above reminiscences only today after reading a fascinating new story, published in Science. A postdoctoral researcher at Yale called Magdalena Koziol, working in the lab of Antonio Giraldez, had her zebrafish poisoned by a fellow postdoc. Koziol, suspecting sabotage, started leaving two batches of zebrafish in the lab - one labeled with her name and the other unlabeled. Only the batch bearing her name died. Thereafter hidden cameras were installed that caught the culprit, who confessed and obviously was sacked. But Koziol claims that her adviser Giraldez told her not to talk about it to anyone, and declined to give her a letter explaining what had happened, or help her make up for the research time she lost while all this was happening - which can be critical for the career of a postdoctoral scientist. He then turned increasingly hostile to her. Now she has filed a lawsuit against Giraldez and Yale University. You can read more about this case on this blog (or on Science if you have a subscription).

The issue is in court, but there is something more to the case that, in my opinion, will play a major role in deciding the outcome. Koziol has left Yale and returned to the lab of Nobel Laureate John Gurdon where she originally did her Ph.D. He has helped secure a small grant for her to carry on her research, and even contributed some personal money. Perhaps more important, he supports her case against Giraldez and Yale University, and has come out with this remarkable quote:  “They wrote her a letter promising her circumstances in which she could conduct her research, and they quite clearly did not provide even remotely adequate circumstances.”

I don't personally know the full facts of the case, which I'm sure will be put before the court. But I believe I have enough training by now to guess the relevant equations:

1. Giraldez + Yale University + Yale's lawyers  >>  Koziol + Koziol's lawyer
2. Giraldez + Yale University + Yale's lawyers  <  Koziol + Koziol's lawyer + a Nobel Laureate (Gurdon).

So my prediction is they will settle out of court, or else she will win in court. But we can't test what would have happened if there were no Nobel Laureate in the equation.


vbalki said...

Rings a bell louder and clearer than Liberty Bell! Pardon the personal note, but here's a power equation (or rather, strong inequality) from my own experience. early in my career, a lowly temporary postdoc (me) faced a Director who called attention to the fact that I had let slip 6 occasions in which I could have seen him off or received him at the airport on his jaunts. (Yes, it was THAT kind of institute then.) When I ingenuously asked whether it was necessary to do so, he looked at me long and hard as if I had been stupid in class (I had), and very deliberately said (and I quote verbatim): "Young man, your attitude in these social matters will colour mine in academic matters". As clear a statement of purpose as there ever was! Obviously, Director >>> postdoc on a year's contract, but I saw the equation as
Retaining self-respect >>> being jobless with no prospects in sight, and a baby about to arrive. So I just quit. Grim situation for a while, but things brightened in a while (perhaps because providence rescues the foolhardy). But I have never doubted the correctness of my second inequality.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Commenting very late, but I note, so did Balki! I stopped reading blogs, including yours, at some point, which is clearly a mistake. Staggering stories, both the Yale one and yours. The environment in the US can indeed be toxic. I'm a bit surprised that the registrar at your former institute has so much power compared to senior faculty members.

Balki, you should name that institute and that director. Surely you have nothing to lose at this point? At our institute, having had a director for > 10 years who redefines the meaning of "self-effacing", hopefully things will never slide back to that sort of situation.

vbalki said...

Just saw your comment, Rahul. I'm not sure if Sunil would appreciate his blog being used as a forum for the random reminiscences of minor players. But perhaps it is important to remember history, if only to make sure it doesn't ever repeat itself: you have answered your own question when you say, "At our institute, ..., hopefully things will never slide back to that sort of situation" (!)

KK said...

But, but, but Sunil Mukhi, did you not have a LOT of experience overturning glasses with a card on top in the Xavier's college canteen? That is one of my fondest memories of the institution - and of the very clever waiter who figured out how to turn them back up-side-up without much water spilling! Thought of you so checked out your blog! Kiran.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Balki -- I should have figured :)

KK -- that was a Feynman stunt, no? He describes it in "Surely you're joking". Don't tell me Sunil (or Feynman?) plagiarised these ideas!