Episode 2: Doing Science With Everyone at the Table

Could we create more knowledge by changing the way we do scientific research? We spoke with the NASA Psyche mission’s principal investigator and ASU Interplanetary Initiative vice president Lindy Elkins-Tanton about the limitations of “hero science,” and how she is using an inclusive model where collaborative teams pursue “profound and important questions.”

Read Lindy Elkins-Tanton’s Issues essay, “Time to Say Goodbye to Our Heroes?


Lisa Margonelli: Welcome to The Ongoing Transformation, a podcast from Issues in Science and Technology. Issues is a quarterly journal published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, and Arizona State University. I’m Lisa Margonelli, editor-in-chief of Issues, and on this episode we’re interviewing Lindy Elkins-Tanton. Lindy is the vice president of the ASU Interplanetary Initiative, and she’s also principal investigator of the NASA Psyche mission, which launches in 2022 to explore a unique metallic asteroid orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter. In her August 2021 Issues essay, Lindy argues for a radical restructuring of how we do research, divesting from big names and asking teams instead to focus on big questions and ambitious goals. The future of humankind, she says, requires that we hear all the voices at the table—not only the loudest.

Margonelli: Lindy, thank you so much for joining us today. I’d like to ask you how you got interested in science. Was there some sort of ideal picture of what a scientist was?

Elkins-Tanton: That’s a great question. Thanks, Lisa. It’s really great to be here to talk about this. I’m looking forward to the conversation. You know, I often ask when I give a public lecture, especially to people interested in astronomy and planetary science: What was the moment in your life when you knew that you wanted to do this, or be interested in this, or follow this? It’s like the question you just asked me. And probably almost a third of the audience says it was when they saw Jupiter or Saturn through a telescope when they were 10 or 11 or 12. It’s just this formative moment. For the rest, it’s mostly Carl Sagan — Cosmos, Star Trek, Star Wars, and NASA. And I had all those things, including the Jupiter and Saturn sighting when I was about that age. But I still wanted to be a veterinarian.

I had this tremendous, all-consuming interest in natural sciences that carried me across all the disciplines. And even though as an undergraduate I studied science, I was not quite ready to go to graduate school. So for me, it’s been not a real direct path into science, but instead, a real passion that grew largely in the decade after my undergraduate degree in how teams of people work together. What is it that makes for not just a good outcome for the project, but a good outcome for the person? The thing that made me come back was the knowledge that in research science, the questions can be as challenging as you want. You never need get bored, you can always challenge yourself to a greater question. And it came along with the beautiful opportunity to teach. Those are the things that drove me back to science, so I’ve had multiple multiple drives all along.

Margonelli: That’s a very unusual path, especially to where you’re working now. I want to know, when did you realize that science was cutthroat?

Elkins-Tanton: You know, I feel like that is an education that most of us get—as I got—during our PhDs. Some people are clever enough to cotton on to this a little sooner. But for the rest of us, there’s really a bit of a professional education during our PhDs, where we learn that we need to stand up and fight for our ideas. We shed that sweet, naive notion that if I do a fantastic study that gives us new insight into the world around us, and I publish it, and it’s peer reviewed, then there it is—people will understand it, and they will adopt it, and it will change human thought.

Very quickly, you begin to realize that that’s not enough. You can publish a brilliant piece of work, but unless you go out on the conference circuit, give talks, engage with other people, have what can be heated conversations, and you’re determined, your information doesn’t really spread. It’s little epiphanies like that, that begin to help us understand what the culture really is.

Margonelli: Did you have a particular epiphany about what the culture really was, where you realized, “Oh, this is really, really highly competitive?”

Elkins-Tanton: There wasn’t one specific epiphany, but I was at MIT for my PhD, a place that I love and have huge loyalty for but which is also absolutely a series of warring city-states among the faculty

People really are fighting for their name, for their results, to be known and not to be dismissed and not to be disrespected, but instead to be adopted by the field and seen for what it is. And I got the feeling while I was there, and also a little bit later in my career, that talking about things like the culture of the laboratory wasn’t welcome. This was around 2000, so it’s only 20 years ago. It’s not totally ancient history. I got the feeling that talking about things like, “let’s definitely take turns speaking at team meetings” and “maybe when you criticize someone else’s work, you could go about it in a more supportive way”—those were thought to be for people who were too weak to make it in the real way. And that if you were really meant to be a serious, top-notch research scientist, you didn’t need to worry about those kinds of things because you’re ready to play hardball. And it took me, oh, about 15 years to figure out what the rebuttal to that was. It took a long time.

Margonelli: I want to move to your rebuttal in a second. I think it’s so interesting because many of us have a really heroic ideal of scientists from movies, from the books that we read, just from our culture. We see them as explorers, visionaries, people who solve problems, moral exemplars, the whole bit. And we don’t really like to think of them as competitive, cutthroat, potentially underhanded, undermining, loud, maybe mean. But let’s talk about this thing that started happening after you’d been in the field for 15 years, and you start to look closer at what was going on around you. You saw something wrong, and you called it the “hero model.” What did you see?

Elkins-Tanton: To address exactly these words that you’re using, I think a lot of scientists are adventurers and explorers and visionaries. And I think a lot of scientists are truly driving forward human knowledge. That’s what science is about‑it’s a way to apprehend the world around us and deepen human knowledge in a way that we hope eliminates or reduces our implicit and explicit bias about what we are observing. We’re just trying to be better observers.

But if you think for a moment, science is a human endeavor. Everything humans do is a human endeavor, made up of humans with all of our faults and foibles and all of our inclinations. And of course, there are people in science who want to be famous. And of course, there are people in science who want to be lauded as excellent and people who want to win awards. I think it’s true in every field of human endeavor. And in science, unfortunately, it does pull us a little bit away from the reason that we’re there in the first place.

While I was a management consultant, I had this sort of epiphany moment around what it can be to work together—where it’s not always each person wanting their own reputation to be the more famous, it’s not always each person trying to be so careful not to ask a question that might be viewed as stupid, or to show weakness. Instead, you can have a circumstance where everyone is working together to create an outcome which is more important than their personal fame. This was a moment working with what was then Touche Ross Management Consulting in Philadelphia, and it’s now at Deloitte. We were working with a client around an issue that the client had, a big client. And we started as a team, envisioning how we could organize ourselves and the client in such a way that we would have a better outcome. And we made up this construct in our heads, and then we convinced everyone to do it. It sounds so simple, right? We all sat around, thought of a way to change, and discussed it. And then it happened. It was an organizational change. It was how the team was going to be organized, the actions that they were going to take, and the outcomes that they were going to make.

That was in stark difference to the kind of science I was doing, where you can’t just imagine what the outcome is and then make it happen. You don’t make it up in your head and then it becomes real. Suddenly, I realized that in the human endeavor, that is what we do. We agree upon how we’re going to organize ourselves, we agree upon the culture we’re going to take, and we agree upon the outcomes we’re trying to create, and magic—it happens. And that was the reason why I realized that in science, we could be doing these great outcomes, we could be creating this new knowledge, but in a construct that was more human and inclusive and positive and effective. We could make up that part of it.

Margonelli: If I can just back up, I think that what happened here is that a management consultant went to some of the fanciest labs in the country and said, “Why are they managed this way? Why are people interacting this way?” I think that’s what you’re saying. And I need you to give me a picture of how science labs are organized and why you called it “hero science.”

Elkins-Tanton: Yeah. Let’s go back to what was happening in 19th-century Germany that was then carried forward to other parts of Europe and to the United States. And I’m going to give you what’s a little bit of a caricature, but for anyone who’s active in research science, I think you’ll also absolutely recognize it. It’s a circumstance where one professor is the person who personifies their subdiscipline at that university. They own that field, they own that body of knowledge, they are the expert in it. And they also own a pyramid of resources. In extreme cases, that includes junior faculty hires along with lab techs and staff to run their organization, and graduate students, and sometimes undergraduate interns, postdocs, and then budgets and equipment, and access to that equipment. So there’s a big pyramid of resources, and on the top is the “hero” professor. So, you know, what could go wrong?

Margonelli: So they started this way back in Germany, in the 15 or 1600s—this was the beginning of the German research?

Elkins-Tanton: Yeah. And then it really got developed in the 18th and 19th centuries, when there was actually a recognition there that to become a leading faculty, you actually had to have charisma and fame. And that was part of your job: to stand up there and assert, “I am the expert. Listen to me, I’ll use my deep convincing voice. And I will never end my sentences with an upturned question inflection.”

There was this culture to create the hero. It was a purposeful culture; we wanted our senior faculty to stand up and be heroes.

Margonelli: And now what we’ve done is we’ve imported that over here, many, many years later, doing a completely different kind of science. We’re not looking at ants and saying where are their ovaries? We’re doing a completely different kind of science that pervades our entire lives. And we still have funding, fame, students’ education, discovery, equipment tied up to an individual.

Elkins-Tanton: That’s right.

Margonelli: And so that has become, in effect, a management culture of science. So how did that model go adrift?

Elkins-Tanton: It served us well for almost a millennium, didn’t it? You know, alas, we’re no longer Lord Kelvin, we can’t any longer discover fundamental chemistry in our kitchen. And it’s very hard to make gigantic breakthroughs in individual subdisciplines unconnected to other subdisciplines.

There are many different ways that it can and has gone wrong and ways that it’s still working really well, too. There are subdisciplines that are super fruitful in this model. But one problem is there is a limit to the resources that are available, so people become very protective of their pyramid of resources. In some cases, this even means that they don’t like their graduate students to spend time with other faculty or research in other labs because they want all of their time and attention in that one discipline on their thesis.

So this kind of “team” culture that’s led entirely by one senior person—who I might add, in general, has never had any leadership or management training, or HR training of any kind; they come at us purely as an individual scientist—it can be rife for bullying and harassment. And often, there’s very little transparency to outsiders or other people in the organization, and few paths for help. This is something we’ve heard so much about since the Me Too movement began, there’s been a big National Academy report—we know that there are problems with harassment and bullying in science and engineering and STEM fields.

Part of it is this: there is not a network of resources available for the people in the pyramid, and their entire careers are dependent upon that senior person. So those are some of the ways [the hero model] goes wrong.

And I would just add that another really critical way it can go wrong is that the senior scientist, the hero scientist, is very motivated to protect their intellectual property and not have other people, at their own institution or others, who claim to have exactly the same or better expertise in that area. So new discoveries tend to be in incremental slivers of real estate around that pyramid of resources and knowledge, up until they bump against another subdiscipline. Right away that paradigm is something that has to be broken. We have to be welcome and rewarded for connecting outside of our pyramid.

Margonelli: It’s interesting. So you’re saying there’s two issues here. One is there’s a set of incentives that drive people towards competitive behaviors. There might be bullying, there might be harassment. I think Science in 2017 published an article by two academics called “Bullying Is Real,” which is kind of a wild stage on which to have that realization. And then there’s also this problem with reproducing the science. Nature interviewed 1500 scientists in 2016 and found that 70% of them said that they couldn’t reproduce their colleagues’ studies, which means that there’s incentives in place to publish that do not also incentivize that being good, reproducible research. So there’s a set of incentives for negative behaviors. And then there’s another set of incentives that are hampering progress, or the same set of incentives are hampering progress on big questions.

Elkins-Tanton: That’s right. That’s exactly right. So we would like the questions to be bigger, and we’d like progress toward them to be faster. And we would also like the process to be more rewarding and inclusive for everyone who wants to participate. Here’s really the bottom line. To me, the absolute bottom line is that science is the best way that humans have ever invented to create lasting knowledge, knowledge that we don’t immediately find out is wrong, knowledge that we can actually make progress based upon. It’s the knowledge that gave us the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccinations. These are things that really matter, and this is a process that really matters.

But of course, it’s imperfect. It’s imperfect because it’s done by humans. It’s not that science is either this perfect thing or we stop believing in it. It’s that science as a human endeavor, and like every human endeavor, we can improve it.

So here are some ways that we could make it better: We can remove some of the things that make harassment and bullying possible. We can create new connections. We can reward scientists and other researchers for working across disciplines. And then, how do we stretch out of the subdiscipline model? That’s the second part of it. How do we ask bigger questions?

Margonelli: One of the things that came up in reading your story and talking to you is that while we’re all kind of hung up on the hero model because it seems totally normal to us and it’s a big part of our popular culture; in fact, there are places like NASA that don’t use it. They have a different organizational model. Can you explain to me what these other models could be, and the models that you’re thinking about?

Elkins-Tanton: Yeah, let’s consider a kind of axis of models where on the one hand, we’ve got this hero model of the person sitting on top of their mountain and asserting that what they know is true. And so the product here is knowledge, but it is produced by a person—in fact, a personality, I would say—and that’s what leads to the hero aspect. On the other end might be something where you’re just focused on the product, where you really are looking at an outcome, and the people are a way to create that outcome. A corporate setting is often a situation where that happens, and any place where there’s a project that’s bigger than the individual.

That’s what happens a lot of times with NASA missions. I’m working on one right now, and working on this mission really did lead to a lot of epiphanies for me about how things can work. This is not to say that NASA is without heroes. In a lot of ways, NASA, and all space exploration, is all about heroes. But it doesn’t have to be. Everything we do can be more inclusive, more voices heard, focused on the outcome. It doesn’t have to be about making individual people more famous.

Margonelli: So there’s a couple of things that you do. You’re doing the Psyche mission, I think that has 800 people involved in it. So obviously your management training is a really big deal there, being able to think in terms of what do you do with 800 people. But the other thing is that you’re working with ASU’s Interplanetary Initiative. And you’re thinking about how to create learning environments at the same time, because one of the issues is that the heroes are supposed to train students. And they do train students, but there are a lot of other incentives involved in here which may not end up with students who are set to go to work. So let’s stop and talk just a little bit about heroes and students, and then talk about your approach.

Elkins-Tanton: Yeah, I’d love to, thanks. Of course, faculty at universities and colleges teach classes to undergraduates. So that’s one very important part of our purpose. And our addition to society is teaching people not just content, but how to learn. Teaching people to be learners, teaching people to have agency, teaching people to go out and be effective in the world and in their lives.

That takes on its most focused version when faculty are working with graduate students, students who are getting their masters or their PhDs. They’re really entered into that pyramid of resources because usually they’re doing original research that is based upon an idea that the faculty member had. It’s the faculty member’s idea–usually, not always—and the student’s job is to carry it out and simultaneously to learn. It’s an apprenticeship model. Now, apprenticeship [models], when they’re done well—totally brilliant. The students learn to be a top expert in their aspect of this subdiscipline, and they’re supported by their faculty member, who then writes them supportive letters, and helps them get jobs, and talks to their colleagues about how great they are, and sets them up for talks, and does all the things that that a dedicated mentor can do to help launch their career.

Now, I don’t need to say, that is a lot of work. It takes some emotional intelligence as well as an intellectual and emotional commitment to the student. So you can immediately see, if you haven’t experienced it yourself, how this can either be a beautiful, effective thing or a tremendous tragedy for the student.

So we’re working at the Interplanetary Initiative at ASU not just on different ways to put together teams for more rapid and effective outcomes, and also more positive ones for the team members, but also on the education side. I’ve been focusing a lot on undergraduates because here’s the divide that I’ve been seeing in education: undergraduates, in its sort of pure end number state, listen to lectures and read textbooks and give back the information on a test, which is incredibly passive. We’ve known for decades that that is not the most effective way to learn. But it’s the way that we faculty thing that undergraduates have to learn in order to get all the content that we need to cram into their heads during these four precious years that we have to influence what they know.

But of course, we’re now in the information age, where all information is everywhere. So how about if we teach students instead the skills that they would otherwise have to wait [until] graduate school to learn? What if we teach them how to find information, decide upon its biases and its verity, and know what to do with that information, decide what outcomes they’re looking for, and figure out how to do those outcomes? In other words, how to be a master learner—someone who can actually execute with expertise, someone who can decide for themselves whether the answer is right or wrong.

These things are not what’s usually taught in undergraduate [education]. And they lead graduate students to have existential crises because all the ways they’d been judged a good student in their lives—test scores, grades, sitting still and listening—are now no longer useful. In fact, they’re the opposite of what a graduate student needs. The graduate student needs to think for themselves, find their own information, decide for themselves when it’s right, decide how to take action. So we’re trying to teach all those things as undergraduates; we’re trying to give the agency and the voice to everyone in the pyramid, not just to the hero.

Margonelli: Wow. Okay. So now let’s talk a little bit about how the Interplanetary Initiative is trying to move away from the hero model into a different way of doing research.

Elkins-Tanton: I’m excited to talk about this. So people talk a lot about how do we bring together art and science. And what I’ve mainly seen happen, from a scientist’s point of view, is there’s a hero scientist who’s running this research project. And an artist is just seconded onto their team almost like a mascot, who’s going to follow them around, learn about this, and create some art. And I haven’t seen many cases where that drove forward the science or the art. So I felt like that was an unsuccessful way to become interdisciplinary.

Meanwhile, I start working on the Psyche mission at Jet Propulsion Laboratory and with our many other partners across the country and around the world. As you said, at peak, we’ve had 800 people working on this team. And I see meetings where, in the room, we’ve got, say, three engineers and a couple of scientists, a graphic designer, a scheduler, a budgeter, a photographer, and we’re all working together and everyone is speaking. And we’re all creating these plans and these actions.

It really struck me like, this is such a different model for how people actually sit around a table, plan their actions, and then go off and produce a product. And the thing that I realized was that, in this model, the goal that we’re doing is exterior to ourselves. Everyone is there because they themselves, and their specific knowledge, is required to reach that goal. And that’s not the same thing as in a scientific lab where the one person has the idea—so the goal is almost internal to the leader—and the other people are brought along, maybe almost as observers, in some cases.

So at Interplanetary Initiative, we’re trying to use this other model, where we agree upon an external goal. It doesn’t just come from one person who’s the leader and the thought proposer, it comes from the whole group. We decide on an external goal, we assemble the team of disciplines that are required to reach that goal, and then everyone’s there for a reason, everyone’s voice gets heard, everyone’s knowledge is necessary. You immediately start with a much more equal and collaborative culture, working toward a goal that everyone equally values.

Margonelli: The culture I’ve been brought up in, which isn’t even the culture of science, says, “Well, you know, that’s just much too squishy. Expertise has to have some edges to it, and if you let everything in, you’re no longer experts.” Give me a really close-up look of like, how do you come up with the questions? And how do you compose the teams?

Elkins-Tanton: So coming up with the questions, we’ve been experimenting with different processing, so I’ll describe to you the one that we’re using right now that seems to be working pretty well. But I want to start with a little preamble, which might be a question of, how do scientists and engineers decide the questions that they’re pursuing? Did I start, when I was purely an academic scientist, thinking to myself, “What is the most important thing I could possibly solve with my time and effort here on Earth?” Generally, not. Generally, I start with, “What is the next really cool question that could possibly be addressed with the tools that I have in my tool belt?”—which is a different question, which is a different way to come about your research. That’s not true for everyone. There are labs all over the world where people are saying, “The very most important thing I can solve with my knowledge in the world today is blah, blah, blah.” And whatever it is, they’re going for it. It’s a really big, important goal. But a lot of us start with a little bit closer horizon.

And so what we’ve been doing instead is we do something we call the big questions process, where we bring as many people as we can into a room. The first time we did it, it was 40 or 50 people from the university and from the community.

Margonelli: They weren’t all scientists?

Elkins-Tanton: No, right. So I just invited everyone I thought I could convince to come because it was such a kind of flyer experiment that I was running. This was in 2017. And we’ve updated a little bit, but basically, the process was I invited people I thought would come. I had some deans, I had somebody from business school, somebody from public service, I had somebody from science, I had faculty. And then I had graduate students, and even undergraduates, and also some members of the general community outside the university who were just interested in what we were doing. So 40 or 50 people, very wide range of disciplines and very wide range of experiences.

And we started with a really classic brainstorm, meaning no criticism. Meaning everyone’s idea is received with a welcome. That’s very important so as not to cause people to shut up from pressure. And what we were trying to do is discover what the questions were that needed to be answered to create a positive human space future. What are the most important questions for us to answer to create a positive human space future? And people started thinking of ideas. One idea would be, “How do we make sure that when we are settled on another body, when we become interplanetary on the Moon or Mars, that humans have a structure to interact? And we understand what we’re going to be—who’s our governance, how they relate to each other?” Questions like that, all the way to, “What is a faster propulsion system that will get us to Mars?” And also, “How do we educate humans here at home on Earth so they’ll be ready to be interplanetary?”

So many questions across such a wide range of things. So we wrote them all down. And after we were finished writing them down on the board, we voted on them. We talked about them a little bit but didn’t want to get people into their critical mode.

Margonelli: This actually gives a very interesting view into your mindset, which is that you’re really looking at interactions with humans and then thinking about results, rather than looking to, in the crudest terms, separate the sheep from the goats, which has often been a winnowing process in science of separating out the people who don’t get to talk. And so this is much more about using every bit of information to structure some set of results that you might deliver or act upon.

Elkins-Tanton: That’s so right. It’s the fundamental belief that I have that science and engineering is in service of all humanity. It’s not in service of a tiny club of your closest peers who could recognize or contest what you’ve discovered. That is not a sufficient use of our time and resources. It’s really in service of all of humanity. And so let’s involve everyone in thinking about what’s important and feeling like they’re a part of the conversation.

Now, very, very important distinction: this is not getting rid of the idea of an expert. It’s not downplaying in any way the importance of a deeply rigorous education and an absolutely unflagging determination to find something that is true and not just guided by your own biases. You have to have that. You need to have disciplinary expertise of the deepest variety. But the thing that’s different is that we can bring those disciplinary experts together in groups of people who include non-disciplinary experts and find directions that are even more important for all of us.

Margonelli: I want you to actually talk about what happens when people get interdisciplinary. Then you set up these teams, and then the teams work in a really different way. Can you just talk about that a little bit?

Elkins-Tanton: Right. Let me start by saying that we give little bits of seed funding to these projects to kind of get them going. And of course, the traditional way that a seed funding program works is that individual heroes come and say, “Here’s my proposal for this brilliant idea.” And then they get some money to take back and do with as they normally would.

So that’s not what we do. We do these big questions. It’s a group project. And then around each of the highest voted questions, we invite people to volunteer into teams—all happening in the same afternoon. This isn’t a go-home exercise, this is all happening in real time. And then they have a couple of different jobs to do while they’re sitting together in the room for an hour. What are some milestones that we could reach in one year with a modest amount of funding that would get us on the track toward a solution for this very big question? Some of these questions are questions that would take a lifetime or several lifetimes to answer. But you can make a milestone for the year.

So first of all, setting really big outcomes and goals. And then you have to identify the disciplines that are needed for your milestones that you don’t yet have. Who are the empty seats at the table, so to speak? Then we pick a leader—there’s no leader till then. We pick a leader and we send them away, and we give them about two weeks to come back with a budget and a team and the fleshed-out milestones. The budgets aren’t big, you know, $10,000 $20,000 per year—they don’t even pay for a whole student. But if you have a leader, if you’ve picked a leader who can come back in two weeks with those things, then they’re probably effective enough to go for the year.

And then the big difference is we put them under professional project management. So we actually hold them to their milestones and their goals and their budget. And we support them if they need extra help in a different way. That’s not usual in academia, and I expected people to kind of run screaming—but it turned out people loved it. We’ve had very few teams disband. People really respond to having a question that’s bigger than just themselves. And that’s about being on a motivated team and having the supportive structure. It turns out, it really connects to something deeply human among us, and it’s been really successful.

Margonelli: Wow, that’s such an inspiring model. And you make it sound kind of fun.

If you want to read more about how successful Lindy’s ideas have been, read her article over on issues.org. The way we conduct research could be very, very different.

Thank you for joining us for this episode of The Ongoing Transformation. And thank you so much to our guest, Lindy Elkins Tanton, for talking to us about the problems of the hero model of science, how we can change it, and how to train the next generation of science leaders. Visit us at issues.org for more conversations and articles. I’m Lisa Margonelli, editor-in-chief of Issues in Science and Technology. See you next time.