Nearly two years ago, I started my journey as a tenure-track assistant professor. And within this past year, a number of my close friends, colleagues, collaborators, and former mentors have decided to leave academia to continue pursuing science outside of academia in industry.

Indeed, more and more financially lucrative industry opportunities are now available to aspiring young scientists, even those interested in more basic science research. Likewise, many industry positions also now offer high flexibility, opportunities for leadership within the company, and a high degree of intellectual autonomy. This has led to me really reflect on what are the truly unique value propositions in academia? These are my thoughts from that reflection.

I believe academia’s unique value proposition is in its freedom to educate.

This freedom to educate may be realized in many different ways:

  1. Academics can educate undergraduates in the classroom using whatever pedagogical philosophy we want
  2. Academics can educate graduate and post-doctoral students in the lab to pursue discoveries using whatever techniques we want
  3. Academics can educate the scientific community through giving talks and publishing articles about these discoveries while openly sharing methods, code, reagents, animal models, data, etc
  4. Academics can educate the general public through communication, outreach, and advocacy

Like all freedoms, this freedom to educate is accompanied with responsibility. I would argue that this freedom is further accompanied by an obligation and duty. As such, I believe, those who pursue academia have an obligation and duty to exercise this unique value proposition by educating undergraduates, graduate, post-docs, the scientific community, and the general public.

With respect to undergraduate, graduate, and even post-doctoral education, I believe it is the responsibility, obligation, and duty of academics to teach not only concrete skills in, say, the STEM fields, but also the critical thinking and ethical considerations in applying these skills to addressing real-world and research problems. Further, with respect to graduate and even post-doctoral education, I believe it is the responsibility, obligation, and duty of academics to also teach these students how to teach through hands-on experiences in a safe environment.

With respect to the scientific community, I believe it is the responsibility, obligation, and duty of academics to teach through giving talks and publishing research articles about these discoveries. Further, I believe it is the responsibility, obligation, and duty of academics to openly sharing methods, code, reagents, animal models, data, etc in order to ensure transparency and reproducibility, but also to empower the scientific community to build upon their teachings such that as a collective we can discover and teach more than what each one of us can discover or teach alone. Indeed, I am of the opinion that a scientist who does research but never wants to publish the results or share the data and code that led to those results would be better suited for industry than academia. Academia’s unique value proposition allows me to go out and talk about my research and openly share code and data without concerns over inadvertently disclosing trade-secrets and incurring legal liabilities.

With respect to the general public, I believe it is the responsibility, obligation, and duty of academics to teach about the implications and impact of our research either in the form of direct communication or through advocacy of particular public policies. As primarily publicly funded professionals, we are not beholden to private equity or share-holders. We are free to speak without any approval from an HR division, boss, or higher up. And we must exercise this unique privilege to build trust and advocate for the public whose tax dollars enable our work.

In discussing this recent exodus of scientists from academia to industry, a senior faculty member asked me about my “institutional allegiance” to perhaps gauge my likelihood of leaving. Perhaps as she correctly sensed, I, as a faculty member who started her lab during COVID and continues to engage with colleagues mostly remotely, have had very limited exposure to elements that would typically help foster “institutional allegiance.” I do not go to work and see the smiling faces of my admins. I do not exchange friendly banter with my colleagues over the water cooler. I give talks, teach, and collaborate broadly with little regard for physical boundaries.

However, regardless, my allegiance is not to an institution. My allegiance will never be to an institution, be it an academic or an industry one. My allegiance will always be to my community and my cause, which I define for myself. And the institution I choose to align myself with must prove through its actions that its mission is well aligned with my own. The institution must provide the resources to enable me to further this shared mission. Together, we must be bigger and better than the sum of our parts. And as such, I must be able to accomplish more than what I could accomplish without this institutional support and affiliation.

No institution is perfect, be it an academic or industry one. And I would be amiss if I did not recognize the systemic challenges within academia that continue to persist. I believe those of us in academia must choose to see these systemic challenges. We must choose to acknowledge them. Because only through seeing and acknowledging them, may we work to rectify them.

Because I believe this unique value proposition of academia, this freedom to education and the responsibilities that accompany it, are worth working to preserve, perpetuate, and make more accessible to all who wish to pursue and wield it.