Security is a thumb and blanket. – Charles M. Schultz

“Sir, this is not permitted,” said the airport security guard, holding up a small packet of yellow mustard she found in my briefcase. “Please, go ahead and throw it away,” I said. “Sir,” she followed up, “do you understand why this is not allowed?” “No,” I said, “but go ahead and take it.” “Sir,” she said, becoming exasperated, “do you understand why this is not allowed?” “No,” I reiterated, “but I don't want it, so go ahead and take it.”

“What's the problem?” asked her supervisor, joining us to the consternation of the passengers waiting behind me. “He's upset because I'm taking this away,” she said. “No,” I rejoined, “I'm not upset, go ahead and take it.” “Sir,” said the supervisor, “do you understand why you cannot have this?” I sighed. “No, but I don't want it.” “Listen,” he said, “how many drops of nitrous oxide would it take to blow up a plane?” “I have no idea,” I said, and we were finished. Of course, nitrous oxide is laughing gas, but I kept that to myself.

Okay, that was a long time ago, and I won't face such an enjoyable foray into the sublimely ridiculous when I take flight out of the country in a little while. But rather than pack, I got to thinking about security (and this story). But not airport security, as important as it is. I just told that story because I think it's funny.

I've recently been having conversations about tenure, that curious feature of the academic lifestyle. Some of the people I've been talking with are very concerned about this. Sure, I get it: we have so little that is secure about a job in science, we're happy to have something to hold onto. And tenure sounds so good. “You can't fire me, I have tenure.” Of course, you can take away my space and personnel, you can take away my office, you can probably take away all (or much) of my salary, but you can't fire me. Oh, wait, you can eliminate my position. Security, indeed.

So why is tenure so important? For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, some clarification might be helpful. Tenure is an academic thing, mostly in the U.S. and Canada, a rung on the academic ladder that comes after extensive review of achievements, publications, and funding following a limited period of appointment (failure to achieve tenure is generally equivalent to dismissal). So, what is it actually for (or perceived to be for)? In an 1894 case involving University of Wisconsin (go Badgers!), Professor Richard T. Ely, the university board of trustees made the following statement: “In all lines of academic investigation it is of the utmost importance that the investigator should be absolutely free to follow the indications of truth wherever they may lead. Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.” Donors, public opinion, business interests, cancel culture, and the like will not impinge on academic freedom. However unpopular, the search for truth must go on.

My colleagues in industry (scientific and otherwise) think this is hysterical. Okay, many of them are paid a lot better than we are, but still, ‘absolutely free to follow the indications of truth?’ They know that we are eaten alive by each other, tearing ourselves apart as we review and are reviewed for our grants and papers. And of course, our jobs depend on successfully surviving the gauntlets we create for ourselves and our colleagues. Like industry, our academic lives are dog-eat-dog (although perhaps they are pitbulls to our terriers). But in industry there is no such thing as tenure; you can lose your position if the company decides to downsize, reorganize, or change direction, and you have to go find another job.

For our academic colleagues whose endeavors tend to be truly ‘academic,’ writing poetry, tracing patterns of history, or interpreting trends in ceramic design, it is easy to see why promoting unpopular positions may require tenure. But how useful is this in the biomedical science community? And how often do we actually use it?

Many years ago, I spoke at a conference where a tenured professor used the podium to pronounce that the idea that AIDS is caused by HIV was ridiculous (he also scoffed at the idea that mutations cause cancer). Yes, he had every right to do that without fearing that he would be chucked out of his position (he had arguably earned that right). And of course, he was completely wrong, and thankfully his opinion did not take hold, even briefly. But I wonder how many tenured faculty take up utterly contrary positions? (I am not advocating that you take up his position, I'm talking about taking on other dogma, the sort that might be wrong.) You still have to obtain grants (and publish, if you want to get grants); and ideas that are contrary enough to jeopardize a position are sufficiently problematic to compromise funding. No, I don't think we really use tenure. At least, not in this sense.

“Mole,” you might say, (I'm listening), “you're being naïve. Tenure lets me take chances that I can't afford to take when I'm struggling early on in earning it. Without it, I can't explore new avenues of research.” Could be. And maybe you do; you're a better judge of this than I am. But I also know that while you're rocking science, the tenured fixture in the next office is just taking up space, doing the minimum needed to keep things plodding along. (There is an argument here for mandatory retirement; indeed, this is the norm in many countries. But really, why should a thriving research program be terminated due to something as irrelevant as age? But that's a conversation for another time.)

In case you were wondering, no, I don't have tenure. My institution doesn't grant it. In fact, I gave up tenure years ago when I took my current position. To keep my job, I have to do what I've always had to do: publish good science and work to have an impact in my field, mentor my more junior colleagues and trainees (not just in my own lab), and work to find new questions and problems to study. Indeed, that is my security. Not just my track record, but my evolving research program. If my institution closed its doors, or decided that they were no longer interested in what I do, I think I could still get a job.

Is there a point to this? Of course there is (hey, it's MOLE here!). If you are on a tenure track, and worried about security, focus on what real security means: put your effort into the things that make you an invaluable part of your institution, including developing an exciting research program, becoming an outstanding mentor, and being a trusted and valued collaborator by your colleagues.

I frequently advise junior faculty who are (of course) very concerned about promotion and tenure. Clearly, the first order of business is to get the lab going, generate data, and publish papers (while applying for grants based on the new data). It's hard, I know. But I also advise them that while they are doing all that (while struggling to have some sort of life), they have another thing to think about. It is unlikely that the research program they brought with them (from a previous lab) is going to go the distance. They need to think about something new to work on. Hopefully, something with ‘legs.’ Think about it: you trained with (hopefully) someone who had established a vibrant research program, and through your hard work, you managed to get a piece of it, a little plot of land, to start your own lab. And to do that, you'll divide that piece into smaller pieces to give to your trainees to work on (while, presumably, doing bench work yourself). It could happen that your efforts will open up into a wonderful vista of new possibilities to explore (really, I contend that most research problems are windows into a deeper science). But most often, the most exciting observations in this area are behind you – can you see yourself working on this for the next ten years? Twenty? More? In the first few years of you starting your lab, it is really valuable to think, read, ponder, test ideas that you can see widening into an area of research you can make your mark on (I mean, ‘on which you can make your mark’). If you do, if you establish your own research area, and find out some exciting things about it, you will be invited to speak at meetings, you will publish exciting papers, you will get grants (“this is the only person working on this important problem,” is a good thing for a reviewer to say), and you will have security of a sort. Oh, and you'll probably get tenured.

And if you happen to have tenure, then this is not the time to relax. Double your efforts, explore new ideas, and be a role model to those who aspire to what you have. Security is an illusion, but genuine contribution is not. Don't be tethered by tenure. Whatever that is.

By the way, things didn't go as easily at airport security as I'd hoped, but I got dressed and made my flight in time. I wonder if it's an insectivore thing?