Surviving as an Extremophile in the Acidic Life of Academia

Avi Loeb
4 min readMay 21, 2024
Bright colors of the Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park, are produced by extremophiles. (Image credit: Wikimedia)

In a recent faculty meeting with the governing body of Harvard University, the so-called Harvard Corporation, I asked: “What are the two main threats to academic scholarship?” My answer was: “Bureaucracy and politics.”

Since I came to Harvard thirty one years ago, the relative number of administrators to faculty has increased considerably. There used to be a direct line between a faculty member and the top Harvard leadership, but today there are many gatekeepers along the way, including new layers of mini-deans and intermediate administrators for specific mini-tasks. Faculty have more forms to fill, more rules to follow, more restrictions to keep in mind, and more committees to attend.

One could have hoped that the increase in administrative muscle would streamline operations but the reality is different. Instead of the administrators serving scholarship, they suppress its blossom. Their increased authority dominates academic life. Some administrators see their calling in establishing new rules and enforcing them rather than asking how they can foster academic excellence and free speech.

The second threat to scholarship stems from a strong inclination to lean in the direction of one extreme of the political map. At tense political times, this alienates a portion of the faculty and students who feel unsafe to speak their mind. This culture violates the neutrality required for fostering dialogues within a plural society. Many colleagues told me recently that they avoid speaking in faculty meetings out of fear from repercussions. While serving as chair of the Harvard Astronomy department (2011–2020) and director of two Harvard Institutes (2005-present), I always encouraged a transparent, free and open intellectual culture.

This political threat to scholarship is most apparent in the context of traditional politics but it also applies to thinking outside the box in science. For example, my recent research program to retrieve materials from an interstellar meteor encountered pushback from a group of scientists, bloggers and journalists. They claimed that they do so in order to “protect science.” When efforts to collect evidence and analyze it face pushback in the name of science, one is reminded of George Orwell’s party slogan in his book 1984: “Ignorance is strength.” Forty years after 1984, in 2024, ignorance is strength in the mind of some who claim to protect science. Criticism of evidence gathering are better classified as “anti-science.” Assigning the title “astrophysicists” to bloggers or science-communicators who had not published a single scientific paper over the past decade is an oxymoron.

But there is a glimmer of hope. After responding to peer-reviews on one of my recent research papers on the meteor, I shared it with an editor who noted:

Dear Avi,

First, congratulations to the team. What a long, evolved process.

As a non-scientist editor, I am most struck by the language of the readers’ comments and the team’s response to them. The courtesy of these exchanges is insufficiently celebrated. (I’ve long thought this during my university press days gathering peer review reports.) It is, I think, an effect of the scientific method. In some places I can lob personal, snide and sarcastic broadsides at someone. But within the exercise of peer review I must not only use the language of evidence, data, and hypothesis, I must do so with a minimum amount of decorum. The fact that everyone involved must be able to defend assertions judged by similar yardsticks has a salutary effect on behavior.”

to which I replied:

“This is testimony to the professional behavior of the reviewers. It is not true for other individuals but gladly they were not selected as reviewers by the editor (because we asked the editor not to use them). The good news is that there are good people all around. The bad news is that a small minority of individuals is disruptive and vocal. This is true in science as much as it is true in politics.”

Given this backdrop, how can the future of academia be better than the present? Unfortunately, it cannot. Just as entropy always increases according to the second law of thermodynamics, bureaucracy only increases in time according to the first law of governance. Once administrators dominate academic life, they introduce new rules and require more administrators to enforce them. And once politics was introduced to academia, it cannot be rooted out because current members were selected by a politicized system and they will tend to justify it and select others who think alike.

The important lesson from biology is that survival requires adaptation. Those who suffer from the new trends in academia will need to learn how to thrive, irrespective of the level of acidity around them.

Indeed, some extremophiles, called acidophiles, are organisms that thrive under highly acidic conditions within marine volcanic vents, acidic sulfur springs, acid rock drainage and acid mine drainage. They echo the words of Frank Sinatra: “If I can make it there, I’m gonna make it anywhere.”


Image credit: Chris Michel (October 2023)

Avi Loeb is the head of the Galileo Project, founding director of Harvard University’s — Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011–2020). He is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and a co-author of the textbook “Life in the Cosmos”, both published in 2021. His new book, titled “Interstellar”, was published in August 2023.



Avi Loeb

Avi Loeb is the Baird Professor of Science and Institute director at Harvard University and the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial” and "Interstellar".