As a society we use PhDs as a way to provide additional university level training to young people. Young people who have never seen a real job, do not understand the world outside education and are generally fairly wet-behind the ears.
However, because a PhD can be hugely advantageous to a career, it usually occurs before the big financial commitments of house and family, the young people can tolerate the low wages because of the likely benefits.
The problem however, is that we get research being done by people who have gone straight from school to University and then to research and are clueless about the world outside academia. So for obvious reasons, the research focusses on the interests of academia and is done from the viewpoint of academia.
That has clearly been hugely damaging. For example in the area of climate, the “precautionary principle” was advocated without any concern for the huge damage of the suggested action to the economy. Largely because those involved in academic research had very little understanding of the important role of energy in our economy.
There are however a vast pool of highly trained people, usually with degrees and even second degrees in science, engineering, etc., who by the amount of time spent by them on blogs like WattsUpWithThat not only have time on their hands, not only have the relevant skills, but are very keen to do research. So why not make better use of them?
Why not encourage this by introducing a “PhD program for the retired?” In essence it would be a standard PhD (or perhaps masters) with funding from the state in return for a final written report. And not only would society get the benefit of the research, but we would also get the huge benefit of years spent in a career.
So, What’s stopping this?
In my book “the Academic Ape” I highlighted the way academia is extremely defensive of “its control” over certain areas of work. I suggested that a PhD … was in effect a submission, in the physical sense of “being submissive”, to a hierarchical structure within academia that would require submissive posturing by those seeking to gain PhDs.
I was not joking.
That creates huge issues trying to bring back people into the current research structure. In order for someone of perhaps 65 with a life time’s experience in work to fit in with academia, they would have to stop thinking of themselves as experienced and start behaving as a submissive, wet-behind-the-ears 21 year old.
Instead of having their own ideas, they would need to learn (again) to act as a student and regurgitate views they did not hold themselves but happened to be those of their supervisor. And they would be subject to the whim of a supervisor who would themselves have had no experience outside academia, who could well be far less proficient at science in general than the 65 year old “student”. And in areas like sociology, we have additional problems because a 65 year old student may well, from a lifetime’s experience of politics, hold very different views from the gullible younger generations still learning to see through the distorted political lens painted for them by the education system.
A very different Kind of Research Institute
Thus whilst older people may have a lot of potential beneficial attribute to offer to improve research, what they don’t have is tolerance for the kind of politicised hierarchical organisations that seem to reject outside experience who are currently tasked with doing research.
That does not mean that large numbers of academics, given time and experience dealing with the awkward old fogeys, could not create a tremendous partnership combining the best of the old and the young. However that could not be done within the present framework that is designed for young students.
Done without thought, it is almost certain to be a failure. And we have seen the kind of dispute that would likely arise (but at a micro-scale) in the kind of battles we saw between academia and sceptics.
So, this is not something we could just pour money into and expect success. Instead like learning to walk, we will have to try many times and expect to fall over many times as well.
The timescales may well be very different. It’s unlikely that older people will want to work within a University – but they will have much further to travel to get to the University. And funding would not be simple. Older retired people already have an income – but it’s a fairly fixed income and if there are significant travel costs, it would put many off. Older people would want to live and work from home -that saves space in the University but there may be substantial increased travel costs travelling from home. That can be reduced by the internet – but it can only go so far – it’s not that easy setting up a nuclear reactor in your home!
And attitudes will be different: older people may not be prepared to “rough it” like the younger generation.
All in all, getting the participation of older people with the right skills, whilst hugely beneficial when we get it working, it will not be straightforward and will require a very different approach.
Also, we could not think of this as “replacing” research by the young, because society still needs to train the young. So, there is no “saving” in terms of research spending. Instead this is purely additional research – and until we try it, we don’t know the true value.