Responsibility and Authority—Academia vs. Startup

This is a short personal blog post with some reflections on my first four months as a startup founder. It’s mostly relevant to my readers from academia.

I have been a professor at Columbia since 2013, and I got tenure in 2019. My lab, the Ocean Transport Group, studies the physical oceanography of how stuff moves around the ocean and how this transport influences Earth’s large-scale climate and ecosystems. I love this research, and I love my colleagues, collaborators and students. But I don’t love the dominant culture of academia and the underlying structural / institutional systems. I’ve written about this a bit before (e.g. here and here).

Recently I’ve also come to realize that I enjoy building things much more than I enjoy writing papers. These personal factors, combined with the rapid growth and adoption of Pangeo around the world, got me thinking that maybe I’d be better suited to a different career path. So I teamed up with longtime collaborator Joe Hamman and decided to start a company:

I am currently on leave from Columbia and knee deep in the process of building a company and product from the ground up. I’m having a blast! This post is not so much about Earthmover or our product; rather, it’s a reflection on academia from the perspective of a new startup founder.

Becoming a founder has raised my awareness of the difference between responsibility and authority. Responsibility is when you are accountable for creating a certain outcome. Authority is when you are empowered to make the important decisions needed to achieve that outcome. Ideally a particular role has both in equal measure. This lexicon is pretty common in the tech / business world, but I hadn’t ever come across it in academia.

As a founder, I have maximum responsibility. Whether Earthmover succeeds or fails is truly up to me. If we don’t pay our taxes or comply with employment law, it’s ultimately my fault, and maybe I end up broke or in jail. If we become a billion-dollar company, I will make a lot of money. I’m lucky to have a great co-founder to share this tremendous burden of responsibility.

And I have total authority. As CEO, I can enter into any legal agreement with anyone I want. I have a credit card in my wallet connected to our bank account where our investors’ money is sitting. I could spend it all on bitcoin today. (I would eventually be sued or worse, but the authority is there all the same.) I can hire and fire employees at will and delegate my authority how I want. And I am using this authority daily! The amount of decisions to make, bills to pay, contracts to sign, etc. is truly astounding.

Professors have a lot of responsibility too. That’s why we are all so stressed. No one cares more than me whether our lab succeeds. It’s up to me to recruit, train, and retain my team of researchers. If I don’t submit grants and get them funded, people don’t get paid. If I don’t do a good job on my teaching, students don’t learn. If I can’t conceive and execute good research ideas, my standing in the noble pantheon of physical oceanography will wane. If I do a good job, I am rewarded with prizes and prestige. I have a caring and thoughtful group of mentors, senior faculty in my department who provide advice and guidance. But I have no “boss” in the traditional sense. I report to no one. In this way, this situation of a group leader resembles that of a founder.

However, in contrast to a founder, my authority as a professor is actually quite limited. I have authority within certain bounds — what problems to work on, which funding opportunities to pursue, which tools and methods to use. However, particularly when interacting with world outside my university itself, I have very little authority. I cannot enter contracts on behalf of the university. I do not have the final say on hiring, promotions, titles, compensation, etc, even within my own group— that lies with the provost. I cannot really make decisions about the operating procedures and policies that govern so many elements of my job as an academic. I can influence them in various ways, mostly via committees (lots and lots of committees) and emails (lots and lots of emails). But the true authority resides elsewhere in my institution, with the “administration”.

Normally this is not a big problem. When faculty stay in their lane, they have enough authority to do what they need to do. However, I’ve been part of a movement that is trying to bring about structural changes in science, broadly called Open Science. We are trying to transform scientific practice into something less siloed, more collaborative and transparent, and more inclusive. This requires rethinking a lot of the fundamentals. And I often find I don’t have the authority to make the changes I want.

For example, I am trying to create space in our group and our university for talented research software engineers who might otherwise take lucrative industry jobs. I want to give them prestigious titles, competitive compensation, and responsibility / authority of their own. Yet my institution insists on seeing these people as “support staff,” and there’s not much I can do as an individual professor to change this. This really limits my ability to recruit and retain talent.

On a larger scale, this mismatch between responsibility and authority in academia is evident in the process Columbia is undertaking to create our new Climate School. The Climate School is an exciting idea as well as a massive disruption to the existing ecosystem of climate research at our institution. Faculty, researchers, and students all have strong feelings about how it should be organized and governed. Endless committees and subcommittees have been convened to deliver recommendations and protest perceived missteps. The people involved in this generally have a lot of responsibility — namely, to deliver world-class climate research and education — and they care a lot about the Climate School governance because it will directly affect their ability to discharge this responsibility. But they are finding they don’t actually have the authority to decide. The climate school was created by the university president, who reports to the trustees. That’s where the authority lies. Our university is not a democracy, and this fact clashes with the progressive, social-justice-oriented philosophy of most of its faculty.

Overall I am loving having more authority as a startup founder. Despite the massive uncertainty of the startup, I feel less stressed because I feel more in control of my destiny. Obviously a tiny startup is very different from a massive, centuries-old university. Nevertheless, I feel that this concept of responsibility vs. authority is at the core of the malaise infecting so many of my academic colleagues. We love science, but we dislike many aspects of our system, and we feel powerless to change them.

The university will never give us more authority. It can’t. So I think the answer is to give us less responsibility. Make being a professor more of a 9–5 job, and give the responsibility to the people who have the real authority.

Another solution is for more faculty to leave the university and start their own smaller, more agile institutions (startups, non-profits, coops, etc.) where they have the authority to do things the way they want. Arcadia Science is a great example of this. Open Climate Fix is another. Or 2i2c. I’m excited to see more of these emerge in the coming decade.



Associate Professor, Earth & Environmental Sciences, Columbia University.

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