It's coming from inside the room

Several recent experiences have brought me to ponder a question this week. And in one of the several formulations in my mind it reads: Is it more effective to drive change of large systems from a position inside of the room or from a position outside of the room?

In one way of defining this, I am wondering if change happens with large institutions (the US government/polity, Universities, NIH extramural granting activities, you know, the usual targets) most rapidly and assuredly if it is driven by the barbarians at the gate or by the insiders.

To a first approximation this also means something about the tone and the approach to change. We are more likely to get inside the room if we align ourselves with the powers that be. We are more likely to get inside the room with an approach and a tone and a personality that is compatible with (read: similar to) the already-empowered folks.

I exist in what I think of as a duality that does a half-assed job of being inside the room and a half-assed job of being outside of the room. To a certain view, I’m a NIH extramural funding insider. I was trained in at least one stop around people who were very successful grant getting folks. I started my faculty position around folks that were not only good at getting grants but were themselves more than usually powerful. Leaders of societies, editors of journals, people that went on National Advisory Council of NIH ICs. People who were able to just phone up an IC director at will and have that person take their call. I have been awarded NIH grants as a PI on more than one occasion. I have served an appointed stint on study section and still get invited to review with enough regularity for me to maintain continual-submission privileges most of the time. My institutional affiliation commands respect in some quarters although of course that is down to all the other folks who do and have worked for it, not to me.

Particularly when it comes to NIH granting matters, I am often inside the room. Or, at least one of the anterooms. This gives me the opportunity to influence things. I have a direct role in review of proposals and in voting for scores of proposals. I can contribute to the discussion of grants, potentially affecting not just the outcome of that grant but the way other reviewers approach review*. My comments reach the ears of Program Officers, giving them (my words) the opportunity to effect change**.

The reach of these opportunities is limited in scope. I only reach so many folks.

I also have the opportunity to rant from outside the room in several ways, most pointedly through this blog and the online academic community. As you know, I do so. But in addition, in real life, there are many scenarios in which I am not in the room. As you ascend the ranks of the NIH ICs to where the RealPower lies, I’m definitely an outsider. I have maybe one Director that would take my call but it is not the the most useful IC for me, under most circumstances. My work is not good enough to command attention all the way to the top. I am not empowered within academic societies or journals. My institution has never really liked me much.

Many of us exist in these diverse roles with respect to the insider/outsider status. It is on a spectrum and it is highly fluid. And, as we know from broader discussions of privilege, it is nigh on impossible for real humans in academia to see their own insider-ness for what it is. And, more specifically, for how it appears to everyone who is just outside that particular door of power.

What is more effective? I don’t know. Take the example of careers that are shaped in large part by the success of the individual under the NIH grant scheme. If I’m on study section I can fight hard for good applications that are submitted by African-American PIs. I can even choose to review as much as I possibly can, such that my fighting has the chance to reach as many applications from black PIs as possible. That’s nice and sober insider guy behavior. I can, if I choose, make occasional oblique or pointed comments that refer to the Ginther report finding on discrimination and bias. Maybe it will counter an implicit bias here or there. Maybe a reviewer or a PO will start trying to counter such biases themselves. Slightly more shouty, but still insider-dude stuff.

Or I could rant and rave and bring Gither up at the slightest excuse. I don’t tend to do this inside the room. I think that would be less*** effective…but I really don’t know.

From outside the room in my social media life, as you know Dear Reader, I cast a few more stones and shout louder. I keep Ginther refreshed, seven years later, in the minds of my fellow travelers. (I have other issues as well). I hope my ranting reaches new audiences, since we have new people finding the online science community daily. I yell at the NIH Director’s twitter account but that’s mostly street theatre for the crowd, I know ol’ Francis Collins isn’t really paying any attention.

By this point you are getting the feeling that I think that the best thing to do is to pursue both avenues. And you would be right. I do think that the best and most assured way to effect maximal change of ponderous systems is to both gain insider power and to continue to shout and rave from outside the gates.

The example I used is one person on an agenda but most typically this involves different people pursing the same agenda.

I call it the Martin and Malcolm scenario, if you will permit. This requires a certain cartoonized view of the Civil Rights era in this country but I think it suffices even if it polarizes the two men (and their movements) in a way that is historically less than accurate. We lionize Martin Luther King, Jr. as the personification of the pacifist approach that worked within the system in sober and solid ways. His movement essentially shamed the powers that be into doing better. Or argued the powers that be into doing better. And this was much more effective than the aggressive, even violent, approach of Malcolm X and his movement.

Or so goes the tale of the insider crowd. The more educated ones even try to point out how Malcolm X moderated his position and became more conciliatory later on.

My view is that the Martin approach only gained traction as a more palatable alternative to the scenario raised by the Malcolm X type approach.

And I think you can see this interplay reflected in countless historical struggles in which political solutions to imbalances of power were reached. Quite often history credits progress to the sober efforts of working the levers of the insiders. It may be work done by actual insiders or by people patiently and quietly trying to move the insiders. It may be people working slowly to become insiders. But my reading of history says that structures of power only relent and start to negotiate with the sober, insider crowd because they are in existential fear of the barbarians at the gate.

This analysis, however, doesn’t answer the question in any sort of fine-grained manner. On any given issue, at any given time, are we more in need of anger? Or are we in need of a greater emphasis on sober, staid, insider-club efforts? When has the ground been sufficiently prepared to suggest now is the time for sowing and nurturing seedlings?

To this very month I struggle with how shouty versus sober I should be in trying to improve the way institutions behave. To return to the above example, anytime I am on a study section I have to moderate my behavior. When do I speak up and what do I say? When do I have an opportunity to help advance what I think is the best thing to do and when are my goals best served by shutting up? And given that DM is such a poorly kept secret at this point, to what extent do my opinions expressed on social media compromise my efforts inside the room?

And, to bring it to a fine point, I see my colleagues and friends out there who are trying to effect change in science, academics and professional life grappling with these issues daily.

It is not always comfortable. I’ve been trying to describe my own duality here, this is the easy version. I think I’m a pretty good dude and I respect what I’m trying to do. So shouty-me isn’t too mad when insider-club me misses a trick, soft-pedals when I might kick more tail, acts diplomatically and accepts slow and incremental over the dramatic. Insider-club me understand whole heartedly why shouty-me is angry and totally supports it. Insider-me might tell shouty-me to tone it down a bit and wring the hands a bit over efficacy (see above) but in general is on board. Outsider-me understands the while insider-me has a certain standing inside the club, this is tenuous and hard won and does not convey the power that it may appear to convey to other outsiders.

This isn’t so easy when the insider and the outsider are not the same person.

Outsiders are quick to view the insider who is putatively on their side as a quisling if they do not slay all the dragons right now with extreme prejudice.

Insiders are quick to castigate the outsider as a counter-productive, self-aggrandizing egotist who is hurting the shared cause more than helping it.

We see this in Democratic party politics. Bernie supporters versus Hillary supporters expressed some of this dynamic. We see this in intersectional feminism.

We also see this, I think, in solving the Real Problems of the NIH. And of Open / Paywall publishing. And of career trajectories of trainees.

And we see this in the fight to reduce sexual harassment, sexual assault and sex-based discrimination that occurs in and around academic science careers.

I think we need both voices. We need people inside the clubs. We need people who are really, really angry shouting loudly from outside of the room (and sometimes inside of the room). I do not support confidence that either position, quisling apologist versus enraged pure soul, is obviously correct, right or most productive. I don't think that history supports such a conclusion on either side.

We need both.
*Just this month a friend was recollecting something I had said at a study section meeting when we first met, something over 10 years ago.
**Which may not be in the direction I would desire, of course.
***I’m already enough of “that guy” who people roll their eyes at. I don’t need more of that baggage, I suspect.

12 responses so far

  • Morgan Price says:

    MLK Jr. was arrested over 100 times. Not sure what the science policy analog would be. Maybe trying to shut down review panels?

  • DJMH says:

    Enjoyed this. I was startled when someone in my lab told me that I probably had more influence than I realized (at the time I was complaining about some admin level decisions that I felt powerless to influence). I had to haul up and recognize that just because I'd been the grouchy trainee for a long, long, long time, didn't mean I still was.

    Perhaps even Collins goes to bed thinking, "If only I had actual power, like a Senator."

  • Ola says:

    Structures of power only relent and start to negotiate with the sober, insider crowd because they are in existential fear of the barbarians at the gate. This is what I come here for. You're such a good writer DM!

    Beyond academia there's a deeper conversation to be had about how online culture permits us to to lead these duplicitous lives. I suspect the stereotype of a respectful and kind everyday boring professor with a secret online radical alter-ego is way more prevalent in acdemia than anyone lets on. Although in your case you say the avatar is an open secret, elsewhere we've seen the nasty shit that can happen when an online persona is doxxed (perhaps most famously Dr. Isis by that asshole from Nature a few years ago). Clearly there's a component of "polite academic society" deeply uncomfortable with people in the same room having a pseud outside the gates. For sure the things I've written online would horrify my real world colleagues!

    As I see it there are two polarized options - deep cover online which facilitates shouty-ness, or a not-so-secret avatar which comes with a requirement to tone things down just in case the real-world peeps find out. The problems seem to arise when people don't maintain a deep-pseud and still do a lot of shouting.

  • drugmonkey says:

    MP- we don’t need to over stretch the analogy.

    DJMH- Yeah, FC probably does at that. Has to restrain himself at Appropriations hearings from blurting out “this is PENNIES compared to the DOD, dummies, just give me my fucking 2% bump and call it a day!”

    Ola- as per always, anyone who thinks a “deep” pseud online is iron clad protection is foolish- it’s always risky. But in my case you have probably noticed over the years that I do believe in social structures and in institutions. I’m no anarchist. Reformer at best. I doubt many academics are true anarchists.

  • qaz says:

    There's not a lot of government funding in anarchies.

  • DSK says:

    Thanks for this text. I am thinking about it a lot in the context of women in science. I agree, both voices are needed - to induce allies - people that recognize and support the arguments.
    In fact, inside voice is already an ally for the cause. It is exactly what is needed. Hoping for rolling stone effect, as usual.

  • Mclneuro says:

    I have little faith in the 'we are working on it' contingent of NIH reform. They are not. Years post Ginter and 47 years of Title IX in effect w no NIH consequences to those found guilty of sexual misconduct much longer do you need? Waiting and hoping are failures. Insiders are failing. For every bit of 'unhelpful street theater' yelling at Framcis and preaching truth to power, we embolden and unite others to speak their truth.
    We make the press aware. We make Congtess aware. Street theater indeed...
    I am fed the hell up with the hushed tones we use to raise 'only so much' of a ruckus. I talk everyday yo someone dragged out of science unwillingly by a shit system of "protection" NIH won't even ask about.
    I tried asking nicely. For 4 years. Others left asking nicely and are broken and broken. Fuck that.
    When I did relief work we often talked about 'a bed for the night'. The incideousness of just enough to get by without solving the problems.
    Just enough to make the mobs not gather.
    The mobs should gather. Collins needs to go. Now. His system for and by white men and gives others just enough comfort to not riot.
    NIH Director should be champion of science. In classrooms with students, doing PR and preaching the gospel of education, investment and outreach to improve QOL. Instead hes trumping up men who hurt women on his blog.
    When he is gone his legacy will reek of discrimination and harm to women and POC.
    Shameful. If you had any optimism, you would know we could do better. We deserve so much better. Your pessimism has lead you to the uncomfortable place of 'am I an insider or outsider'? Who cares? Maybe you should ask is do I want to be an insider? Probably not.
    There is zero that looks appealing from the outside except they have the money. That's fucking tragic.
    Collins looks miserable. Let's give him a watch, let him play on the patio and put someone in who gives a shit.

  • qaz says:

    @McIneuro - Do you really want Trump nominating the next NIH director?

  • Mclneuro says:

    Collins needs to go. One problem at a time. He's my problem. We will demand better. We have that power to lift a great person up. Enough pessismists show staring 'it could be worse' fuck that. We SHOULD be so much better. We MUST be.

  • drugmonkey says:

    If you had any optimism, you would know we could do better. We deserve so much better.

    I agree that we can do better and that we deserve so much better.

    Your pessimism has lead you to the uncomfortable place of 'am I an insider or outsider'?

    I have tried to dissect the duality in this post, but perhaps I did not do a good job of expressing that I am entirely comfortable with this. I am comfortable with the contrasts within myself. I am, as I tried to allude to, entirely convinced that this is historical reality for the advance of any cause that tries to change the status quo to further outgroup interests. So I am comfortable with that as well.

    What I am not comfortable with is a lack of change.

    Maybe you should ask is do I want to be an insider? Probably not.

    Of course I do. I work reasonably hard at staying viable in this career of grant funded academic science. My career and therefore my ability to co-support my family comes first. Always. Insider-ness helps with that.

    But there are limits and there are just going to be some things that put me on the outside. Some of those things are in my control (shooting my mouth off on this blog, speaking up in study section) and some are less in my control.

    My view is that one does the best one can to be able to look oneself in the mirror and think one is doing a decent job of life.

  • Mclneuro says:

    We need a thousand drugmonkeys on speed or whatever makes folks vigilant and annoyed enough by the abject mediocrity of NIH Director and lackies to see they don't deserve jobs. They are a disgrace. I'm still so mad Qaz threw down with 'Trump will make it worse'.

    It's so fucking dangerous for women right this second. I'm talking to women suicidal from grief at being dragged for doing what should be the right thing. And Qaz telling me it could be worse is fucked up and tone deaf.

    I don't think I'm built for insider-ness. But then again, I wouldn't know. I've never come close to being given a chance.

  • jmz4 says:

    "And Qaz telling me it could be worse is fucked up and tone deaf. "
    -And yet 100% accurate. It could be worse, it has been worse, and right now is (sadly) probably the best it has ever been.
    I can understand people's frustration. I've certainly been frustrated with the NIH's complacency on multiple issues. However, frustration doesn't outweigh what is legally and realistically possible. The NIH is part of HHS, which means it doesn't have as much independent rule-making authority as NSF, for instance.

    When people like Qaz say things could be worse, he's offering the perspective that frustration, however justified, is not a solution, and often leads away from one.

    Being mad at Collins is fine, but if you're so mad that you've lost the valuable insight that whoever replaces him is very likely to be worse, you're not making decisions in a strategic manner, and that's unlikely to lead to practical change, at least not in the direction you want.

    Which leads back to DM's post. To be honest, I think you need both.

    Barbarians at the gate present an extrinsic sense of urgency and threat that motivates action.

    The insiders are the ones that can propose the solutions because they are seen as credible stakeholders.

    If you have completely dichotomous camps, the negotiations are bound to break down as the establishment hunkers down under what it perceives as outside attack, and the barbarians stew in their own impotency, becoming ever more radical in their demands.

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