I have a complaint.
It is impossible these days to live in North America and not be optimistic about the changes the new President of the United States will hopefully initiate, especially for science. These are not easy times for somebody who has pessimism as substantial ingredients in her bloodstream. Psychologists call it “preventive pessimism.” It's essential for my survival. And every time somebody mocks me about it I point out the world needs pessimists. There's too few of us. And we're constantly afraid we'll die out.
Currently your local blogging pessimist is wondering what the heck “restoring science to its rightful place” means. Where is the “rightful place” of science? Who decides that? And how is science supposed to get there? Most people seem to assume the statement is an announcement of financial support towards governmental funding bodies. The optimist is excited. The pessimist points out money alone isn't sufficient, it also matters how it is used. And there are problems one just can't solve with money.
The Academic System
I have written many times on the problems with the present academic system, for example here and here. The central point is, as far as the internal organization is concerned, that the individual incentive structure of the academic system does not presently result in a desirable macro behavior - that would be an efficient use of time, human and financial resources. Instead, the present system rewards behavior that does not necessarily have anything to do with good scientific research. The reasons for this are most importantly:
- The use of simplified measures for scientific success that, once institutionalized, turn into goals researchers pursue for their own sake (like a high number of publications or citations).
- Career obstacles for those who want to change their field of research which creates incentives to stick with a topic even if returns diminish and other areas lack personnel.
- Neglecting to pay attention to sociological effects in large and growing communities which can result in severe misjudgement of promises, hypes, fashion trends, and bubbles of nothing.
This is how far the internal organization is concerned.
Being a scientist is not an easy task. It requires ignoring personal preferences, likes and dislikes and to just focus on the evidence. It is a process that can very easily be skewed by any sort of external pressure, may that be financial pressure, peer pressure or time pressure. Regarding the external organization one further has to worry that public pressure negatively affects researchers objectivity.
The academic “ivory tower” allowed research to flourish in an environment free from such pressures. This protection has now mostly crumbled away, which goes on the expenses of scientific integrity. This is what needs to be restored. It's not that researchers are not aware their interests are being affected, and they don't notice they have to waste time with playing silly games to remain in the market. It's that the problem is a system failure that disables its own repair because spending time on that repair also would be against the individual interest.
- “We will increase support for high-risk, high-payoff research portfolios at our science agencies.”
Sounds good, doesn't it? (Or at least it did before we learned that some high-risk, high-payoff folks wrecked our financial system.) But what does that mean? Who decides how much risk is good for science? Will we get central planning? Will somebody compute it?
I think all such prescriptions are temporary fixes, and will eventually cause new problems. Today you might call for more risk-taking, tomorrow you'll be complaining about too much risk-taking. The only way to address these questions is to allow the system to self-optimize. That means in particular, give scientists enough freedom to chose which path they think leads to progress - within the constraints given by the overall direction the society set. Just trust these scientists. Their individual goal is knowledge discovery, and if you just let them follow these goals that will get you exactly what you want - progress.
In more detail:
- Scientific progress is a long-term project. Running it with people on short-term contracts creates an internal disagreement between individual interest and the long-term goals, especially when combined with high competitive pressure. Scientists will be forced to focus on projects that fit into a short time frame, and they will have to watch out for letters of recommendation necessary for their next job search.
To solve the problem, create decent middle-class-jobs for scientists. These don't have to be high-profile jobs, but they shouldn't be crappy short-term contracts either. People who chose academia aren't there because they want to become rich. They are there because they love science. Just give them a sensible job, one in which they can continue if they do well, one in which they can pursue long-term projects and don't have to be concerned about shifts in the public opinion or the approval of their peers.
In short: stop the trend of exporting more and more research to postdocs on 2 year contracts.
- Avoid that researchers can get stuck in a field and make sure they can change into a different one without too large personal drawbacks. Unless one makes sure this is the case one will create groups of people who self-support their own work and colleagues working on similar projects to increase their own career chances.
To solve the problem, don't require extensive prior experience in a very narrow field of expertise to obtain funding. Instead, look at the applicant's ability to carry out research projects in general. Further, support people who want to learn the basics of a new field, and give them a grace period in which they will likely not be highly productive.
- Appropriately reward community services - they keep science healthy. That might be eg peer review, public outreach or writing review articles - even if no original research. All these are activities we need, but they are currently underappreciated.
- Restore autonomy of researchers and research institutions. Reduce financial dependence and personal dependence of researchers. That means in particular, don't require researchers to get in grants to obtain tenure - it exports power to funding agencies. Don't assign researchers to supervisors or specific topics unless absolutely necessary. Instead, promote independence to support originality.
- Especially in basic research, don't require scientists to plan ahead for several years, this is completely off reality. A five year plan for a research project can become redundant within the first month. A common practice is thus to file in proposals about projects that are already finished or almost finished because then one can write what funding agencies like to hear: lots of details already with results. That's one of the games people have learned to play.
How to solve the problem: orient proposal requirements on the reality of the research field, and fund researchers who have demonstrated the ability to carry out research projects without asking for detailed plans. Have a little faith and don't overplan.
The balance between high-risk and conservative research, and between specialization and interdisciplinarity will vary from field to field, and from one decade to the next. Just make sure the system is able to accommodate these changing needs and can achieve a dynamical balance.
- “Science is the only news. When you scan through a newspaper or magazine, all the human interest stuff is the same old he-said-she-said, the politics and economics the same sorry cyclic dramas, the fashions a pathetic illusion of newness, and even the technology is predictable if you know the science. Human nature doesn’t change much; science does, and the change accrues, altering the world irreversibly.”
If you want change you can believe in, free scientific research from the constraints of an outdated academic system.