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Slow science

Groups of researchers advocate for a science that takes its time and favours quality over quantity. They tell Tania Rabesandratana about their hopes and frustrations.

“Researchers, we urgently need to slow down!”

French anthropologist Joël Candau first sent out an appeal to a small group of colleagues back in October 2010 to vent his exasperation with science in overdrive. In what has since become his call for a Slow Science Movement, Candau says that dealing with growing administrative burdens and rushing from one grant proposal to the next endangered the quality of his research.

“Looking, thinking, reading, writing and teaching all take time,” the University of Nice researcher wrote in his appeal. “Fast science, like fast food, favours quantity over quality.

“We multiply the research projects to fund our laboratories, which are often poverty-stricken. In consequence, as soon as we have […] got a grant, we must immediately consider meeting the next tender, rather than devoting ourselves to the first project,” he continues. “Because the appraisers and other experts are always in a hurry too, our CVs are often solely evaluated by their length: how many publications, how many presentations, how many projects?”

Candau’s manifesto suggests solutions to resist fast science. For instance, career rules could ensure that at least half of scientists’ time is devoted to research, or allow them to take regular periods off management or teaching duties to focus on research. He also proposes that academic recruitment or promotion be based on a small selection of publications, rather than on an indiscriminate, lengthy list of papers.

“I received positive feedback; it seems that a lot of scientists identified with the text,” Candau recalls. Some of his colleagues published the appeal online in July 2011, and the text quickly found an echo across disciplines and well beyond French-speaking borders. Signatories soon offered to translate the text, which is now published in English, Portuguese, Spanish and Esperanto.

Some scientists were reticent to endorse the term Slow Science, which they thought could give a negative image of researchers as lazy. But at the time of writing, more than 4,100 scientists had signed the manifesto. And after publishing his text, Candau found that other thinkers in different countries had already expressed similar ideas.

Oddly enough, one of the earliest Slow Science advocates was Eugene Garfield, one of the founding fathers of bibliometrics in the US. In 1990, Garfield wrote an article called Fast Science vs. Slow Science, or Slow and Steady Wins the Race in US journal The Scientist. He argued that science builds up gradually and requires steady funding; public expectations of quick fixes to major issues through scientific breakthroughs must be undone, he added.

Later, biochemist Lisa Alleva criticised the race for science funding and academic titles in a paper called Taking Time to Savour the Rewards of Slow Science, published in Nature in 2006. “In shedding the ambition of my peers, I have discovered a secret: science, slow science, is perhaps the most rewarding and pleasurable pastime one could ever hope for,” she wrote.

Belgian anthropologist Olivier Gosselain echoed this need for pleasure at work in a 2011 blog post called Slow Science—The De-excellence. Gosselain likened the scientist’s labour to that of a craftsman who takes pride and pleasure in honest, creative, high-quality work.

Meanwhile, a mysterious, faceless Slow Science Academy published its own manifesto on the internet, earning itself 2,300 ‘likes’ on Facebook. Research Europe, curious to find out more about the academy’s motivations, has waited about 10 days to receive an answer from its anonymous founders in Germany. But that may not have been long enough.

Slow Science proponents generally argue against requests for immediate profitability in academia, but are aware that the problem might also be slow to solve, says Isabelle Gavillet, a researcher in information and communication sciences at the University of Lorraine, who helped to disseminate Candau’s manifesto online.

“We tend to criticise our lab director, our university president, or our government, but things are more complex than that,” Gavillet told Research Europe. Helping the Slow Science movement to blossom requires taking a step back to analyse broad issues—such as how to define quality in research and education, or questioning the notion of expertise and evaluation, she adds.

“It’s a wake-up call,” Candau says. “We cannot go faster and faster forever. At one point, we will reach a tipping point.” He concludes: “To do good research you need time and money. If society considers that giving researchers time and money is not a priority, that’s a choice. My wish is that signatories can come up together with strong, clear and realistic proposals to imagine other ways to finance and do research.”

Slow down

* Slow Science is named after similar movements, in particular Slow Food

* Born in the 1980s in Italy, Slow Food is now a non-profit grassroots organisation with over 100,000 members worldwide

* It promotes local, small-scale production of quality, enjoyable food