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.