Are academic standards increasing?

One often hears that academic standards are under threat or declining. Interestingly the same threats do not haunt other human endeavours, like athletics. In 1954 Roger Bannister ran a four minute mile. This was a great achievement. The current world record, however, is apparently around 3 minutes 43 seconds. The best have got better. It’s my contention that the same thing probably happens in science, but it just doesn’t look that way.

The older generation, and I guess I’m entering that group, tend to think standards are not as high as they were in their day. I can think of several reasons for this. Firstly, we tend to forget how little we knew when we were students. Each year people learn a little bit more and thus the difference between an old timer and a new student increases each year. Secondly, the scale of education has changed. The fact that up to 50% of school leavers now attend university does mean that by conventional measures there probably are more students who are less interested, less motivated, and less convinced it is worth putting in the effort, than there were in the past. So the standards at the most competitive end have increased but the standards at the other end will have softened.

Overall though increasing the number of students will make things better. There will be more talented people in the system and the very sense of pressure and competition will drive performance further. Thankfully there are also more women in science than previously. Equity has not been reached so talent pool has not been doubled but there has been progress and I would  expect that the very best students and scientists now are probably as good as they have ever been.

Of course, it doesn’t look this way. It looks like the scientists of the past were all geniuses who made world changing breakthroughs. But I guess time filters things and we only see those very few giants who actually did drive paradigm shifts. In a few hundred years people will see the scientists of our generation as well. There is an old line that illustrates this – someone walking under a great oak remarks, look at those mighty boughs and branches, alas today all one sees is twigs and leaves!

Overall, I’d say that the enormous global talent pool, the huge resources put into science, and the extreme competition, will all be combining to push up standards. But there are also forces that do push things down.

There are the perverse incentives, the flaws in intended meritocracies, the ‘who you know’ networks and the short term obsessions, including the ever present calls for immediate translation and impact. Is it possible that these things have distracted scientists, caused people to ‘play it safe’ and look for easy topics and quick wins at the cost of scientific quality? There is also the insecurity of funding which makes it hard to invest one’s time in long term blue sky work, and also the increase in big science, that limits the options for individual creativity.

I’d say that some of these things do have an impact but it is not always worse than it was in the past. Although no one has been able to establish a perfect ‘meritocracy’ it is possible that the balance between ‘what you know’ and ‘who you know’ is a little better than it was 50 years ago. It is hard to judge whether the drive towards translational research, and even ‘implementation science’ has been at the expense of discovery research or whether it is just that the proportion rather than absolute amount of discovery science has decreased. I think that to some extent low hanging fruit have been harvested in the older disciplines so we may not see as many paradigm shifts, but again I can’t tell whether this is due to the impossibility of seeing history in the present, or whether each field really does go through phases, and we’ll need new fields to open up before we see big paradigm shifts again.

In my own field of molecular and cellular biology I’ve been pretty satisfied with the constant flow of completely unforeseen advances rolling out. Things I was never taught as an undergraduate include: apoptosis, the cell cycle, the histone code, next generation sequencing, green fluorescent protein, RNAi, TALENs, CRISPR etc. These may not be big shifts like the central dogma, and perhaps they are largely new technologies, but nevertheless the impacts have been notable and it gives me hope that the good times will continue to roll.

So I don’t really think that academic standards are falling or that science is in decline. To me that actual problem is that it is getting pretty hot in the kitchen. This is good for humanity but as competition pushes people harder and harder we’ll have to keep thinking about how best to manage the expectations and welfare of our community of researchers.

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