Many researchers dream of a better scholarly world — with fewer funding rounds, greater equality and politer reviewers. Earlier this year, Nature co-sponsored a science-fiction essay competition run by EU-LIFE, an alliance of European research institutes, asking for visions of a scientific utopia.
Some of the competition’s 326 entrants aimed for high ideals of scientific paradise. Others outlined humbler changes, suggesting small differences in how funding is delivered or how research is conducted.
Scientific utopias: tackling an early-morning crisis at the Institute of Merged Sciences
Here we publish the winning science-fiction essay, and two runners-up. Read the judges’ impressions on the EU-LIFE website.
Runner-up Miles Lizak, a biochemist and writer based in Barcelona, Spain, combines religious imagery, magical realism and snappy dialogue to depict the ‘Stupid Questions Office’ at a research institute of the future.
The Stupid Questions Office
I work a regular shift in the Stupid Questions Office. Its official name is Silenced Questions Office (SQO) — a place for researchers at the Institute to ask the questions that come to them in the course of their work here, but which would otherwise go un-asked for fear of sounding stupid. There are, of course, no stupid questions, but the unofficial name has stuck.
The office is a narrow booth specially equipped so that people can enter from one side and exit the other, with a screen separating the querent from the queried — reminiscent of the confessionals found in Catholic churches. They ask their questions anonymously, and I do my best to guide them to an answer, usually by asking questions of my own. In many cases, I simply listen attentively while they talk themselves through their own doubts.
Scientific utopias: the Eclosion Event
My work in the SQO is part of a policy which mandates that all researchers spend a small portion of their working week on strengthening the Institute as a whole. After an initial rotation period, we can choose from a variety of activities, such as sitting on the Methodology Review Forum (workshopping research methods for proposed projects), giving tours to students who are considering careers in research, or taking a shift as ‘hype man’ (we prefer the gender-neutral ‘enthusiasm engineer’) at reviews or presentations.
On the afternoon in question, I had just taken my post on the operator side of the screen, hovering above the floor as I often do during office hours, when I heard the door creak and the hesitant footsteps of a first-time visitor to the SQO — pausing as they took in the closet-sized room with its single chair. I shuffled some papers to gently remind him of my presence.
“Sorry, I’m in the wrong place. Wait, is this the Stu- … the questions office?”
There was a pause, then the scraping of chair legs.
“I just … don’t get it.”
“Then you are in the right place.” I waited, but no question was forthcoming. My guest fidgeted and shifted in his chair. “You seem distressed,” I ventured.
“When researchers come to this office in distress,” I continue, “my first question is: are their basic needs being met? Is the Institute providing the resources they need: access to health care, childcare, a salary that covers the costs of a comfortable living? Do they feel safe and sufficiently rested?”
Aside from the fidgeting — silence. I tried again.
“Perhaps it’s a conflict between you and your colleagues. The Institute’s on-site counsellor serves as a mediator for interpersonal disputes …”
“No, it’s …” he let out an exasperated sigh, “How does this place even function? I’ve been here for months, and I don’t get it.”
“Are you unhappy with the way the Institute operates?”
“No, that’s the problem … I thought I was going to hate the seminars and community service — and at first, I did. But I’ve been able to focus on my research more than ever. What happened to the constant scramble for funding? Where’s all the paperwork?”
“Teams of professionals handle the bureaucratic tasks,” I began, glad for a question I could answer. “They manage finances, materials and permits … The funding department finds grant opportunities, consults with researchers, and writes applications on their behalf.”
“But where’s the cut-throat competition? The clawing for recognition, the fear of being ‘scooped’?”
“If the crises and advancements of the past have taught us anything, it is that collaboration is far more productive than competition.”
“But what about publication?! I haven’t felt any pressure to publish here. No burnout, no stress-related ulcers …” the researcher spluttered in mounting frustration, “I don’t understand how that’s possible.”
“Building our research questions around real-world problems, rather than publication numbers, gives us a sense of purpose in our work. We publish to share our research for the betterment of society, not to increase some career score or prove our worth.”
“So, you’re saying you’ve all reached some kind of … scientific enlightenment?” he scoffed. “You’ve found the secret to the perfect research institute?”
“Perfection is impossible. If there is a key to our success, it is only that we have identified the most dangerous variable in research: pride.”
“Pride is a thin veil for fear — often, fear of admitting we don’t know. What are we doing here if we cannot do that? A researcher who cannot ask a question is no researcher at all.”
In the silence that followed, the air held the taut feeling of a question unsatisfied.
“This is absurd.” He doubled over in his chair, dropping his head into his hands. “I can’t do this any more. I confess … I’m a spy from industry.”
I resisted the temptation to speak, and waited for the confession to continue.
“Academia was so crushing and toxic that I left and went into corporate espionage. I came here to steal your work and sell it. But I can’t do it. I’m giving myself up. I was on my way to the Dean’s office when I ended up here. So, if you could show me how to get there, I’d be grateful. I’ll go to jail, and you’ll never see me again.”
“There is no need for that.”
“Because, my esteemed colleague, you are already in the Dean’s office.”
At my behest the screen drew back, revealing the room filled with bookshelves and soft light that poured out over the awe-struck face of my querent and co-worker. In the centre of the space, I continued to sit above the floor, untethered from the weight of the Academic Ego, buoyed by curiosity through a universe of glorious possibility.