Musings from astrophysics to ecology

Why research

Woods on the foothills of Ariege making a patchwork of bright contrasting red, yelllow and creen colors in the autumn afternoon light. In the background, 3000m Ariege summits with snow.

A few years ago, while I was already thinking about a career change in the direction of environmentally-oriented jobs, I regularly asked myself: should I leave research too? After all, there are many ways in life to a) feel more part of nature b) be useful in an ecological or environmental context. Fundamental research is not necessarily the most straightforward, effective way to do this, and at some stage I became very keen on “Tout plaquer”, as we say in French. Since I made public my intentions to transition to ecological research, I have also now been asked this question by a few people, here and in real life (TM), so this post is here to explain why. I do not claim this to be gospel, or universal, or definitive, or even well-argued. This is just where I have arrived so far. Let me go through what I think were the three main (not necessarily exclusive) possibilities.

Politics & activism

I am very (VERY) upset by the scientific illiteracy, conflicts of interest, corruption, lack of sense of urgency and electoral procrastination of the political class, and by the inaction (or overall inadequacy of actions) that results on the ecology/environmental/climate front. I could become more active politically, either by adhering to a party, or by becoming a member of movements like Scientist Rebellion or Extinction Rebellion. I could glue my hand to cars, spend 24h in jail, become bankrupt as a result of legal fees, or just plain be fired by doing something that my employer strongly disapproves of. Yes, some colleagues have done that in recent years, and for this they have my uttermost respect. But I am not at the stage of engaging into this personally.

Well, first of all, let me make something clear: I am a (relatively active) trade union member. This action, while it is more socially and politically than ecologically motivated, is in any case what I think remains the most effective way to be an activist and to influence policies in general. This is also where I personally feel I can be most useful without necessarily getting into a more visible activism, or into the political arena. Notably because, in France, unions, unlike other grassroot organizations, always have (by legal obligation) a seat at negociating tables. In the research world, they have not been particularly effective in recent years but they remain what we have best to control, and tame ideological social and work policies imposed on us from above, and most of these policies are also directly related to those that are terrible for the environment. So, we fight the same forces.

But this is how far I feel about going into organized activism. I am truly sympathetic to a lot of organizations, I sign petitions, I support people involved, I try (or have tried…) to convince people on social media about the ongoing ecological emergency but…I just don’t feel I can be a hardcore ecological scientific activist. And even less a potentially good politician, or a useful active member of a political party (like a research adviser), for reasons that will become clear below. Also, none of these are jobs (until you get elected), and I wanted for a transition not just a fulfilling hobby or activist side-gig, but a daily job where I both felt useful and could make ends meet for a family.

“Environmental” jobs involving ecology / nature management

This second possibility I considered seriously. However, looking at job-oriented social-media and job ads, I quickly discovered that 90% of “environmental engineer” jobs are, well, let’s state this plainly: bullshit, greenwashing jobs. Yes, most of these jobs are there to at best make reluctant companies comply with regulations, at worst to serve as a green dressing of business-as-usual. No thanks, I am not going to leave a perfectly respectable academic research job to become a pawn, or even worse a clown in the ongoing capitalistic business shitshow.

Then, there are all kinds of jobs at NGOs, biodiversity/nature conservatories, national parks etc. The problem is that most of them are… not really jobs: there are unpaid or lowly paid internships, 3 months contracts, summer jobs etc. At 45 and, again, with a family life, I could not see how I could make something like this work, and I did not find particularly worthy opportunities in my area either.

Finally, there are some jobs in other parts of the civil service, which I could in principle try to move to after following some “formation permanente” courses. Because in France, if you are a civil servant (and I am one as a CNRS employee), there are all kinds of ways you can in principle move to other parts of civil service. One potential employer of this kind, which I considered very seriously at some stage, is the Office National des Forets. However, most jobs there are in the commercial forestry sector (forest management & wood trade). Conservation/ecology scientist jobs at ONF exist but they are quite rare.

So, for lack of direct, obvious opportunities in my region on the timescale of the transition I wanted to make, I concluded that none of these directions were really good options either – at least not for the time being. Also, having a first-hand view as a trade union representative in “formation permanente” committees on what “certifying courses” serving as bridges to new careers are, I could again smell the bullshit from far away and see that a huge majority of them, being delivered by private businesses that have been smelling good money for little effort since the creation of French employees “comptes de formation permanente” a few years ago, are not worth 10% of the money they are billed (and, in my case, that would mean billing taxpayers). It’s one thing to want to change job, but it’s another thing to be ok to become a source of profit for organized neoliberal crookery diverting public money for its own benefit.

Research

All these possibilities duly considered, I did not have an obvious love-at-first-sight moment when looking at environment-oriented jobs in either the private or public sector, and wondered why that was the case: maybe I was after all just a spoiled, whingeing, do-nothing, useless civil-servant that scrounges on taxpayer money, of the kind our rightwing politicians love to hate? (Sarkozy once summed up our days in French academic research as: “it’s very comfortable, there’s light and heating in the buildings.”). More seriously though, a big part of this is fear of the unknown. Moving from a very stable, intellectually (in some ways at least) comfortable job to an unknown, possibly precarious, and totally different professional environment is a big ask for anyone with a family I think (I have tremendous admiration for people who are forced to do this, or can change jobs many times in their life. I truly don’t know how I could navigate this). The other part is what I call “regrets éternels”. As I wrote in a previous post, I was very early in my life totally taken by astrophysics, physics and fundamental research. It’s not an accident. Research, calculating and thinking freely all azimuths is what my brain does, and I still think it does it pretty well despite my grand age (for a theoretical physicist) of 45. That’s what I am harwired for.

Some of you already know that I am a neuroatypical person, fortunately for me of the kind that could navigate the school system well, and then make my way into academic spheres (with quite some luck, let’s not forget this). Leaving the astro universe for good is already hard after 20 years of career, both intellectually, vocationally, and psychologically, but it would be even harder for me I think to get into a completely different job with more hierarchy, more structure, more pressures on my untameable brain. This is also why getting into politics or activism (knocking on people’s doors, engaging in conversations with quidams, compromising on party/organization lines) is not for me. I have a very strong aversion to the social interaction part of it, and let’s face it, I am not good at this: although I do my best in this position, being head of a diverse astrophysics research group is already borderline-overwhelming for me in terms of required social skills. And I have a hard time compromising and interacting with ignoramus and/or egotic people, which I would meet a lot more of in such day jobs requiring more social interactions.

For the time being, the conclusion then has been that the best option for me to serve the ecological/environmental cause, both from an intellectual and mental health point of view, is to keep doing what I do best: do humble research in the obscurity of a research lab, using my experience, skills and natural abilities, far-away from the social part of the action so that I do not get into social anxiety overdrive. Some day, if/when I become competent in the field, and start to feel legit enough as an ecology researcher, I may become a more prominent public activist. A robust scientific foundation is the only thing that currently gives me the required confidence to speak and act in leading and/or public roles (alas, I wish this was also the case of most politicians and even of some of my more mediatic colleagues), and I do not feel I am there at all at this stage in ecology.

So, until then, and for the next few years, here’s the work program I envision: to modestly learn the craft in ecological research, to dive into equations and interesting problems, to design (hopefully useful) computer models, and to interact with field scientists to transfer this research to real world ecological applications like conservation. Because, unlike in astrophysics, at least in ecology applications have the potential to have real-world consequences.


4 responses to “Why research”

  1. Francois,
    I’ve only just met you on the fediverse but I am enjoying the blogs.

    I’m an ecologist doing my PhD, but I started my career in NGOs and government working on ecological restoration in grasslands. Even in NGOs I found much of the money and the projects we do come from the whims of corporate donors such as those in the mining industry or banking (guilt money). I couldn’t live with myself there so I went to government and got a lot of good work done but so much internal politics and limited influence. I feel I have had the most impact as an ecological researcher (during my Masters and PhD). I get to work with community groups and government to do good work for threatened species and see people take on what I am discovering and apply that in conservation.

    I wish you the best of luck in your new career in ecology and look forward to reading some of your work in the future.

    All the best
    Simon

    1. Thanks a lot Simon for your very interesting testimony. It is also my view of the state of the matters at the moment that the most useful, and genuinely profound work gets done in groups/organisations that do not rely on private money. Thanks for the encouragements, happy to share and hear from you at any time !

      François

  2. @FrancoisThank you for sharing, it's good to know I'm not the only one facing this.My degrees are in zoology, an early passion, but for 20 years I've been working in learning technology in academia instead of teaching & research.A new career doesn't scare me – I'm done with Ivory Tower BS – but finding a climate impacting job to support my family with an employer who recognises my transferable skills is a very narrow Venn intersection.Good luck!@Ruth_Mottram

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4 responses to “Why research”

  1. Simon Avatar

    Francois,
    I’ve only just met you on the fediverse but I am enjoying the blogs.

    I’m an ecologist doing my PhD, but I started my career in NGOs and government working on ecological restoration in grasslands. Even in NGOs I found much of the money and the projects we do come from the whims of corporate donors such as those in the mining industry or banking (guilt money). I couldn’t live with myself there so I went to government and got a lot of good work done but so much internal politics and limited influence. I feel I have had the most impact as an ecological researcher (during my Masters and PhD). I get to work with community groups and government to do good work for threatened species and see people take on what I am discovering and apply that in conservation.

    I wish you the best of luck in your new career in ecology and look forward to reading some of your work in the future.

    All the best
    Simon

    1. François Avatar

      Thanks a lot Simon for your very interesting testimony. It is also my view of the state of the matters at the moment that the most useful, and genuinely profound work gets done in groups/organisations that do not rely on private money. Thanks for the encouragements, happy to share and hear from you at any time !

      François

  2. Ecosaurian Avatar

    @FrancoisThank you for sharing, it's good to know I'm not the only one facing this.My degrees are in zoology, an early passion, but for 20 years I've been working in learning technology in academia instead of teaching & research.A new career doesn't scare me – I'm done with Ivory Tower BS – but finding a climate impacting job to support my family with an employer who recognises my transferable skills is a very narrow Venn intersection.Good luck!@Ruth_Mottram

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