The energy of despair, the energy of passion

Two weeks to the first time a PhD candidate I tutored defends her PhD. Four days until summer term starts. One week to the March for Science. Is it a beginning or an end? It is, in any case, a moment of some quiet before a surge of energy. Preparing, hoping, wondering. Will any of it change anything? Will it make a difference? Does it even matter if it does – or doesn’t? Why do we choose to do one thing rather than the other – like, say, preparing the March for Science instead of writing a grant application?

We make choices in the way we dispose of our time and energy. These choices are generally driven by self-preservation, but personal self-preservation can contradict with the professional one. Living up to one’s ideals is always tough. When your ideals are about openness, about equal access to knowledge and to basic services made possible by centuries of research and social progress, about recognition of everyone’s contribution and about building a common work, in a sense you are a at the right place in the scholarly community. But in a painful sense, it is exactly the opposite. Evolving in the academic world is a constant pain when you are moved by such as ideals, not the least because you would assume that said ideals are the core values of your world, and they are in fact not what drives its structure.  You fight for your ideals with the energy of passion, and soon enough it is with the energy of despair.

Passion and despair are constantly mixed in discourses about the academic world, for a good reason. Scientists are passionate about their work: kein Beruf, sondern eine Berufung! The call to duty for the good of science, for the good of searching where no one else has searched before, of understanding something new and of explaining it to others, is a greater motivation, even if the reinforcement of the ego that comes from it is probably not completely selfless. But the leap between this inner drive and what it takes to be given the opportunity to do research in relatively good conditions has become as good as unfathomable. Despair overcomes passion much too often there. Most of those who will be marching in a week will certainly do so for an ideal of science rather than for the reality of the academic world they have to struggle with.

It is not hypocrisy to be marching, though. This will be a diverse, witty crowd, and we need this fresh air especially to give our kids something to look up to. It is a way of telling them that being a researcher is not only about getting back to one’s desk evening after evening when they are in bed, working on grant applications on weekends and correcting dots and commas in papers that don’t look like they are written in a language humanly understandable. It is also about being part of a crowd that will keep asking questions, and will keep trying to figure out how to leave them a world that is the least rotten as can possibly be achieved.

For many, marching or organizing the March is a first step towards being more actively engaged in making the importance of science to society more visible. Questions arise among the organizers, especially: what comes next? I don’t think there has to be an organized structure for what comes after the March. If it raises awareness for the role researchers can empower themselves with, if it makes every single one of the marchers think of their dissemination strategies more in-depth, we will have reached a lot – without associations or networks. And knowing that there are others out there, more and more of them, who do so as well, is as far as I can tell the best next step possible.

For this one day, passion should be stronger than despair. I wish us all to feel uplifted and stronger from those many encounters, from the smiles, the questions, the banners we held and the people we met made because that one day, we marched for science. Together.


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