by Chris Bodenner
A reader writes:
Regarding the reader who referred to science and engineering, such researchers sometimes do take risks with regard to the subject matter of their research - by exploring what are (initially thought to be) wacky ideas or adopting ideas from distant disciplines. Computer scientists, for example, have been stealing concepts and ideas from biology and ecology the over last decade or so, with very fruitful results. (Such borrowings were initially frowned-upon by others in computer science, but no more.)
However, the main benefit of tenure in science and engineering is not that it encourages risk, but that it encourages long-term research efforts. There are many powerful ideas which have only borne fruit after many years or decades of lonely, intense exploration by a single researcher or by a single team. Think of Princeton mathematician Andrew Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, which occupied Wiles for nearly two decades, during which he published hardly anything. In a university environment where, as in business, “What did you for me recently?” is the prevailing tone from administrators, tenure provides the necessary cover for long-term research work. Indeed, tenure may perhaps be the best way for society to ensure such long-term research takes place.
As a researcher in the natural sciences, I have always understood that tenure is about the big studies, the long-term work - not the short period of time required to constantly prove yourself to the institution. For example, check out a recent NYT article on arthritis in wolves. Essentially the biggest risk factor for a moose developing arthritis in old age is its nutrition at an early age. Moose live for more than 20 years, and it's thanks to the tenure process that 50-year long studies can track these patterns. Whether it's the Grants on Galapagos, studies of the effects of climate change, or the big changes to Yellowstone ecology caused by the reintroduction of wolves, these stories can't be told without the time to devote to a single topic that tenure allows.