How to cope with decease in science

Modern aspiring persons live in a dilemma. As opposed to ancient polymaths, we are working way too many hours to know everything. Plus, the aggregate body of knowledge is now colossal. If ‘everything’ is your goal, it is nowadays much harder to know ‘everything’. This is why many people choose the other extreme, which is knowing a very specific topic rather too well. This is a valid academic tactic, as you are more likely to produce new knowledge (or not, but this is the idea). You become an expert. You inhale and exhale data about cabbage market in Luxembourg during the first half of the 19th century. All day. Every day. Of course, studying history is a safe choice, as it involves analysing something that has already happened. It is something that has died but holds some historic value. History, therefore, makes for an interesting graveyard with gemstones of subjective value.

History is static and forgiving but you cannot expect to earn much. Lower risk, lower return. What can still die is the interest for a historic topic. Other social sciences are far more wicked due to addressing dynamic concepts which affect the present, such as demand. Demand is not strictly an economic measure. It can be linked to other abstract concepts such as security and interest. During the Cold War, for instance, there was high interest regarding anything related to the Soviet Union. This interest created the expertise of a ‘Sovietologist’. I vaguely remember instances of academics joking about Sovietologists being unemployed after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is a joke but they would tell it with a hint of truth and vengeance. The same group of academics express the same feeling of contempt towards ‘Sinologists’, who study China. Allegedly if China breaks down into regions, a Sinologist will no longer have a purpose to exist. It is evident that the expert’s identity is threatened by such perspectives.

Moving from abstract state models to something more precise and daily, energy serves as a great example. The nature of energy itself reminds us of economics, a whole. social science. Just as we express the value of real things, such as eggs, fish, cows, wheat in the form of a currency, similarly, we can express oil, gas, renewable energy etc. in the homogenised form of electricity. A computer cannot be run with petrol but both a car and a computer can be run with electricity. Moreover, people are so dependent on electricity that its price affects everything. You need a few watts to turn on a furnace and bake bread. Basic. Energy is subject to a highly interesting existential debate, due to the fact that non-renewable forms constitute a finite resource and its definition of being finite is stricter given that greenhouse gases may, even in the form of legislation, place a limit earlier than the point of depletion. With this in mind, would it be a great investment to focus your PhD research on Oil and Gas economics?

Lets assume you sacrifice your best years and graduate as a Dr. in this field. By that time, however, everything is run on solar and nuclear energy. A mental breakdown follows the realisation. Stay strong, not all hope is lost. The answer lays in the word flexibility. We should wonder, what made the topic valuable in the first place. There has always been demand for electricity and heating. If people are not using conventional means to cover these needs, there is either a vacuum to be filled or an alternative source to be studied. Both are part of the transition and an Oil and Gas Dr. may actually be equally or more qualified to comment on this change than a nuclear specialist whose focus is on other applications. Confidence is a must.

The same applies to the story regarding USSR and China. Is there anyone more qualified to analyse post-Soviet Russia than someone who had been a Sovietologist during its collapse? Is there anyone more fit than a Sinologist when a great deal of social scientists do not even know how China is regionally divided? One should be brave enough to mention that perhaps these two specialisations are under attack by scholars of opposite ideology, as if you need to be a communist to study communism. Maybe they are viewed as diplomats who have spent so much time in a country that they develop emotional attachments and sympathy towards communist regimes (which is a reason why actual diplomats are moved from country to country during their career).

To conclude, the demise of interest for a particular topic is similar to the bankruptcy of a business. The emotional damage can be excruciating and much of the effort may seem to go in vain. It is now something belonging to the past. However, this is actually a feature of how these dynamics work. The key to survival is abandoning your constraints of identity and displaying flexibility. There is no reason to be 100 or 0 – a Sovietologist or nothing. Adapt and become a ‘Russologist’, as the object of interest, or at least one of its layers remains intact. The restless scientists and businessmen are safe. The sleeping giants, or dwarfs, are in danger of becoming obsolete anyways.

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Alexandros Sainidis

I am an International Relations Analyst and the creator of the blog Pecunia et Bellum. I have studied International, European and Area Studies at the Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences in Athens, Greece. I am a bilingual Russian speaker and I am currently learning Mandarin in order to gain a deeper understanding of the current International Affairs in Eurasia.

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