Why academia needs its TED fellows

Many researchers and professors who become TED fellows eventually face the difficult choice of whether to leave behind their academic positions to focus exclusively on making the nonprofit’s mission of “fostering the spread of great ideas” a reality through their work.

Many will choose to leave academia to pursue measurably impactful work and support themselves through nonprofit fundraising or entrepreneurship. This trend is unfortunate for universities. When a TED fellow leaves, now there’s one less person with a passion for change walking the halls, teaching classes and rubbing shoulders with the students who are our future.  

The choice is also understandable. Academia rewards becoming a fellow of a technical or professional organization, but TED fellows tend to be considered entertainers by many faculty, and their work looked at pejoratively as lacking academic rigor, whatever that means. It’s probably a perspective held, unshockingly, by the many who would never be selected as fellows for TED, short for Technology, Entertainment, and Design. 

The fact is, earning that distinction is harder than getting a faculty job or being accepted into an undergraduate program at an Ivy League school. Three percent of doctorate holders will join the faculty of a university, which is not to say the rest tried. The most selective Ivy League schools have acceptance rates of 3% and 4%. Meanwhile, TED says that its fellows program receives “thousands” of applications from across humanity; only 20 people are selected each year, putting the acceptance rate at far under 1%. If you’re an academic who is selected as a TED fellow, you are in an especially elite group because you are in the 3% of doctorate holders and also among the less than 1% of TED fellow applicants accepted.

TED fellows run the gamut from epidemiologists to artists to astrodynamicists and space environmentalists like me. My selection in 2019, the program’s 10th year, marked the first time an aerospace engineer was selected into the fellowship. We are folks with ideas worth spreading who go beyond being to doing. 

Some of those academics who make it into the TED fellowship program — which effectively covers the cost of getting selectees to give a talk on the big TED stage in Vancouver — do so as nontenured faculty. Over time, they may come to recognize that, in some ways, the exposure their ideas get by virtue of them being fellows opens clearer paths to making their ideas reality compared to becoming tenured members of universities, where impact is evaluated myopically on publication records and grants. Getting tenured at a top-tier research university means that you’ve been evaluated for your ability to bring in external funds to support your research program of at least several hundred thousands of dollars per year, you maintain a peer-reviewed publication record of several articles per year, are graduating students with Ph.Ds, and the students you teach don’t believe you suck at it. None of that is about collaborative and transformational work that measurably improves the human condition. Therefore, academic TED fellows are left with the challenge of meeting their metrics for tenure while remaining true to the very cause or issue that got them accepted as TED fellows. Some will choose to leave academia for this reason, too.

Others don’t want to abandon their inner clarion call of working among and for the people in favor of answering to the ivory tower, meaning the school bureaucracy. Those TED fellows that become tenured tend to still feel constrained because the money they can bring into academia is at odds with how it gets spent. For instance, getting funds that can only be used on basic research cuts off progress when the results could be furthered into applied research and ultimately productization.   

To be sure, there are TED fellows who are successful academics, and I’ll put my name in that category for now, but I have wondered if I do have a long-term home in academia because I don’t see many other faculty as eclectic as myself, with a focus on both technical and public writing. I know other TED fellows that have left or are seriously considering leaving academia because their passion can’t be fully expressed and nurtured. 

I believe that research universities should have dedicated efforts to find ways to help their TED fellow misfits to have a welcoming and nurturing home within academia. Universities writ large and their students would benefit as a consequence. 

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About Moriba Jah

Moriba Jah is an astrodynamicist, space environmentalist and associate professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics at the University of Texas at Austin. An AIAA fellow and MacArthur fellow, he’s also chief scientist of startup Privateer Space.

Why academia needs its TED fellows