Monday, July 15, 2013

Networking

I've just gotten back from a rather intense set of conferences, having spent the majority of my time for the last week just plain networking.  This is something that most definitely does not come naturally to me.  I am not a politician, in the sense that I am not good at estimating what people's wants and desires are, or how my actions will be interpreted by them.  Sometimes, this happens even for those friends and family who I most know and love.  It's not that I don't understand emotions---I don't fall anywhere on the autism spectrum---but that I simply get too swept up in my own momentum and my own desires and feelings and stop paying close enough attention.  And I do have to work to put myself in others shoes---again, not because I can't, but because the pull of my own perspective is so compelling to me, and I'm often quite bad about making assumptions that I should not and don't even realize that I am making.

It's a flaw.  It's especially a flaw in science, though perhaps there is a bit more margin for error there than in other entrepreneurial professions. After all, if what you can deliver is valuable enough, then there are many sins that can be forgiven.  But it makes a difference, and a big difference at that.  For those of you not scientists, this fact may be surprising.  Is not science the land of the fact, the truth, the existence of rightness against all odds?  Eppur si muove?

What you have to remember, dear reader, is that the classic image of the scientist as lone scholar or brilliant genius is rooted in a time when the practitioners of science were by and large the lordly class, set apart and at idleness to think by their wealth or their position.  From the classical Greek philosophers to Confucian scholars, medieval monks to Indian astronomers.

Over the past two to three centuries, however, the democratization of science and its fusion with technology have expanded the breadth of participation in science by many orders of magnitude.  At the same time, the advance of technology enabled by this democratization has been tying us ever more tightly together into a single large, global community.

Scientifically, there are so many things going on now and with so much complexity, that one person alone is quite limited in what they can accomplish, even if they were in the privileged position of one of those ancient lords and could take things like food, shelter, and internet access for granted.  To be really effective in the world we live in now, a scientist must collaborate: colleagues bring problems to solve and techniques to help in solving them.  Working together strengthens your ability to publish, to seek funding together, to think of new ideas, and in all other ways to go out and get your science done.  So any scientist who wishes to pursue their ideas in research, as opposed to being a technician in the lab of another person, will of necessity need to learn to be effective to at least some minimal level in the land of networking.

For me, I hate the necessity of having goals in mind for networking.  I basically like people.  I like a lot of my colleagues, and I really enjoy debating things.  If networking just meant socializing, shooting the breeze and debating the nature of facts, I would have no problem with it.  But it's also important to get things done, to avoid offending people accidentally, and to step beyond "interesting discussion" and forward to "mutually beneficial action."  These are the things that I struggle with, and above all else I fear offending colleagues, for I know that is something I can do all too easily, especially if I think I'm debating a bit of science, but they feel like actually I am attacking them.

This last few days went well, I think, with lots of exciting discussions and the opening up of new opportunities, though if there are any ways that I have screwed up, the most important mistakes are the ones that I am least likely of all to know about.

But on I go, to live, to learn, and hopefully to keep making good progress: in my science, in my relations with colleagues, and at simply being a decent human being.
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