Saturday, November 27, 2010

Competing by not competing

I am an expert in evolutionary demography. I am not an expert demographer, in that my knowledge is primarily on topics relevant to, but not central to, demography as it is currently practiced. I have friends who have detailed well informed opinions on the relative merits of the various hypotheses purporting to explain the Second Demographic Transition. I by contrast have no idea what the Second Demographic Transition is. I can't fit a Gamma-Gompertz model of senescence to age-specific mortality data without the help of a statistical demographer. I don't know the literature on pretty much any topic in human demography well enough to write a demography paper without having to first do a great deal of slow background reading.

Despite this, I am setting out to write a human demography paper, with little if any evolution in it. I can do this with some confidence because, as far as I know, I am working in an area that has been almost completely overlooked, and therefore I have no competition. Most anyone with a solid demography background could do a better job of what I want to do than I can, and I really couldn't compete. But because they haven't bothered, I don't have to compete. I can do a decent job and hopefully publish in a good journal without worrying about the competition, because I believe there to be none.

In my recent grant application, I wrote, "My work falls between demography and evolution, outside the well explored territory of either. Work within evolutionary demography tends to focus on senescence and reproduction; I have intentionally eschewed these to seek the question others have avoided. This is a high risk strategy; my work does not fit neatly into any one topic-specific journal or discipline. However this unconventional approach has the opportunity to found a new direction of study and investigate the most important questions therein." This is a polite way of saying that I intentionally avoid competition by seeking out the questions others have ignored, or deemed less interesting. Most successful scientists are successful because they look for opportunities to do what others aren't doing. I don't know to what extent other seek out whole areas that others haven't bothered with. I also don't know how successful or sustainable a strategy this is likely to be in the long run. After all, the success of the work will ultimately be measured by how many other people get interested in it, and try to improve upon it. Successful work, by definition, must therefore attract competition. So if I want to be successful, but continue not having competitors, I’ll need to move on to some other under-appreciated topic fairly quickly. As I rather like the topic I’m currently seeding, I may just have to put up with some competition, and try to stay ahead of them. having my own research group would be a great help in this. Not being an expert demographer is less of a problem if you have an expert demographer on staff.

1 comment:

jte said...

Sounds like you have evolved to fit into an untapped academic niche.