Sunday, January 25, 2009

Change You Can Believe In

“We will restore science to its rightful place.”
~Barack Obama, Inauguration Speech



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.

Restoring Science

    “We will increase support for high-risk, high-payoff research portfolios at our science agencies.”
~Barack Obama, Sciencedebate 2008

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:
  1. 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.


  2. 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.


  3. 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.


  4. 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.


  5. 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.

Bottomline
    “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.”
~Stewart Brand

If you want change you can believe in, free scientific research from the constraints of an outdated academic system.

40 comments:

Jude said...

Considering that there's evidence that government agencies were required to self-censor scientific information that didn't agree with Bush's administration (e.g., information about the evidence in support of global warming), restoring science to its rightful place means to me that we'll accept scientific results even if they (imagine this) contradict the faith of religious USian conservatives.

Frank said...

I thought "Restoring Science to its rightful place" merely meant that we will hopefully find that science informs politics about its results rather thean the other way around?

Bee said...

Hi Jude,

Yes, that is a good point. With a slight abuse of words, distortions of that sort fall under what I call 'public pressure' (with 'public' I mean everything outside the scientific community itself). Science can't work under such circumstances. This sort of pressure is not surprising though. Change is always scary for those who hold the power for it can endanger their position. There is thus good reason to tame science and constrain it into a nishe where it does exactly what they want. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Frank,

:-) That's a nice way to put it. However, I am pretty sure that "restoring science" is meant imply better financial support. It is unclear how much will eventually survive from this plan, but this sounds very hopeful indeed

"The $825 billion stimulus package now being considered by Congress - and championed by President Barack Obama - includes $10 billion for basic scientific research and to upgrade ageing laboratories."

Best,

B.

John Baez said...

Bee wrote:



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.



I don't assume that, and I sort of doubt "most people" do. Maybe most scientists at the Perimeter Institute do?

I thought Obama was hinting that government bodies that are supposed to make decisions based on scientific data will now return to doing this.

He seems to be moving in this direction. For example, he's appointed outspoken scientists to be his science advisor, the head of NOAA, and the Secretary of Energy. I blogged about this a while back.

Anonymous said...

His inaugural speech also mentioned that "Each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet," and that "we will work tirelessly to... roll back the specter of a warming planet." So, I think the most important part of the message is that scientific information relevant for policy will be respected under this administration. (The phrase "data and statistics" even appeared in the inaugural speech!)

It's hard to overstate what a welcome change this is, independent of any funding issues. The book Censoring Science by Mark Bowen (focusing on Jim Hansen and the suppression of NASA findings related to climate change by political appointees), and the recent books by Chris Mooney, paint a pretty shocking picture of just how bad things got over the last eight years. It will take a lot more than just acknowledging the science to deal with global warming, but this is already a huge step in the right direction.

--onymous

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

For me restoring science to its rightful place as opposed to its righteous place are what has to be considered, as they are oft times confused as being the same. Rightful would mean what is its true place, which would entail reason require to be used in deciding what that be, while righteous smacks of religion, where faith precludes reason in decision. Perhaps a clearer statement would have been to declare that ‘science be returned to its place necessitated by logic tempered by observation’.

Then again we must remember that Obama is first and foremost a politician and therefore knows what’s best when speaking to the many. What leads most to have some hope that he might have truly meant what I suggest is that he also officially included non believers as being part of all to be accepted as to be considered.

Best,

Phil

Adam Solomon said...

As an astro/phys undergrad, I agree with most of what you said except what I haven't seen yet (and those parts scare me!), and let's face it - the problems that we're talking about simply can't be solved by the state (with the exception of some issues in the grants process).

Even a grouchy libertarian (like yours truly) thinks that some more federal support for science would be great (and the end of Bush-era censorship will be nice, but hardly a game-changer in academia), so it's a matter of interpretation. Americans have been, one might say, a bit overexcited about the promised change (the election night scene here at Yale was a bit disturbing), so it wouldn't surprise me to see people see the Obama régime as heralding a veritable new Golden Age in science. But, I think most scientists are smarter than that - as the comments above show - and we take Obama's promises to mean something less. What the government can do for science, will hopefully be done better under Obama. What science needs most of all, though, has to come from science itself. With or without Obama in the backdrop of this post, I think the take-home message is a call to academics themselves, more than a comment on our new President :)

One last thing to remember - restoring science to its rightful place in the eyes of the public is far more important than to its rightful place in the federal government.

Chris Granade said...

Seed magazine started a Facebook Page called the Rightful Place Project to discuss just this kind of issue. Given Seed's reach, it may be worthwhile to cross-post some of this discussion there.

Bee said...

Hi John,

Yes, very possibly you are right. I didn't conduct a poll, this was just an impression I had from some discussions, combined with an article in a Canadian newspaper saying something of the sort "the USA has Obama, but what are we doing for science?", and the above mentioned note in NewScientist.

Both issues are however not completely unrelated, for how do you get useful, and objective input from science if the academic system doesn't work properly?

Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Adam,

I agree with you. The most important change has to come from science itself. That's why I keep writing about the topic... You can however help matters by setting signals top-down. Best,

B.

coraifeartaigh said...

Agree with Jude and Frank.
Surely the rightful place of science is where it can be heard by decision-makers, so that world leaders can make decisions based on the best objective scientific advice available. If I understand correctly, one of the first things the Bush administration did was to move the office of science advisor far from the inner circle of the White House (physically as well as metaphorically). He also installed political hacks and Big Business cronies to top positions in major scientific bodies such as NASA... a huge tactical error irrespective of your political viewpoint.

The result was a campaign of misinformation on science, with many consequences - the most serious of which was the effective stalling by the US of any meaningful international action on global warming for 8 years, to the incredulity of most other nations.

Gordon Pasha said...

Hi

You want pessimism? Look at,

http://seekingalpha.com/article/115525-the-scariest-chart-ever?source=front_page_most_popular_articles


Regards
Gordon

Neil' said...

I like to say, Obama (at best, as hope for) represents the triumph of hope and change over fear and greed. We can add, the triumph of intellect and candor over anti-intellectuality and denial.

Pope Maledict XVI said...

Recently I heard a talk about evolution. The speaker emphasised that "fitness" really means "reproductive success"; it doesn't mean that the organism itself is particularly good at doing anything else. Thus for example human beings tend to disintegrate at an alarming rate once their reproductive years are over. Humans could be better designed, so that they would last much longer, but this would not make them more successful at reproducing so Nature doesn't bother.

This made me think about papers on the arxiv. They don't have to be any good, they just have to be able to "reproduce" successfully [ie get lots of cites]. The system, like Nature, actually penalises wastage, ie "being a good paper", if this gets in the way of writing more "reproductively successful" papers.

From this point of view, the situation is hopeless; fighting the system is like fighting against the laws of evolution...sorry to be so pessimistic Bee, but you won't object to that surely? :-)

Arun said...

Dear Bee,

Restore science to its rightful place does indeed have more than one dimension to it.

One is to base policy on science rather than to suppress and redact scientific reports that do not agree with the ruling ideology.

The second is public financial support for science. This is not just through immediate money in the budget, but also by improving science education from school up.

I don't think that the government can do more than that. Government trying to amend academia will open the floodgates to the right wingnuts, who hate that reality has a liberal bias, the next time they are in power.

Best,
-Arun

Arun said...

Dear Bee,

Restore science to its rightful place does indeed have more than one dimension to it.

One is to base policy on science rather than to suppress and redact scientific reports that do not agree with the ruling ideology.

The second is public financial support for science. This is not just through immediate money in the budget, but also by improving science education from school up.

I don't think that the government can do more than that. Government trying to amend academia will open the floodgates to the right wingnuts, who hate that reality has a liberal bias, the next time they are in power.

Best,
-Arun

Tkk said...

Don't become a scientist (from a physicist)

http://wuphys.wustl.edu/~katz/scientist.html

Grant said...

Hi Sabine,

Interesting post, let me respond to your list point-by-point.

1. "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."

Why do you think certain people deserve decent middle-class-jobs just because they love science? How do you measure who is "doing well"? Also, you think there is no correlation between "doing well" and "approval of peers"? Or you think that the correlation exists but small? Or irrelevant?

2. "don't require extensive prior experience in a very narrow field of expertise to obtain funding"

What's the guarantee that if somebody is a good physicist he/she will be a good chemist too? Or you mean only shifting in one discipline? I think currently this is already possible, people are constant shifting from hep-th to hep-ph, hep-lat to hep-ph, hep-th to astro-ph, etc.

"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."

How do you measure what people "want to learn"?

3. "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."

If voluntary community work is (financially) rewarded, it's not voluntary community work anymore, but part of the job description. It would be especially absurd if researchers would be financially rewarded for writing review articles. They would be rewarded by whom? By the way, currently researchers are rewarded (non-financially) for community service because, for example, their reputation grows if they write good review articles, raising their chances for a good job or grant. In fact, I don't think community service is underappreciated. It's just not financially rewarded, but that's a good thing.

4. "... it exports power to funding agencies ..." I hope you realize that all the new rules/regulations/laws that you propose "exports power" to people making those rules/regulations/laws. Public funding agencies are under the control, typically, of the same people. So what's the difference?

5. I more or less agree with you.

Closing remark/question: one issue you avoided is the evaluation of scientists, their progress and their effectiveness (latter point is relevant since resources are finite). Clearly, if you would be a funding agency head, department chair, hiring committee member, etc, you would be interested in this issue. What's your proposal for this?

Best wishes,
Grant

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

I think perhaps what’s overlooked in the statement offered by Stewart Brand is that he’s saying also that more should consider that science is something for all to take notice and understand more. Not only would this have more understand better the world they live in, yet better understand its limits and potentials. What I find to be most important is what you have also stressed here often being it would lend everyone a method by which they can make judgments and decisions for themselves, rather then to solely rely on those of other people or the trust they have in them.

Obama has promised that his administration will insist and demonstrate to be more informative, transparent and accountable. The first two within science would relate as being our ability to observe, what’s then required by all is to take note of what we see and consider what its means (infers). The question then is how should it be considered, as to what method be used? That method should be reason, which is the other important aspect of science.

I submit then that what Obama has told us is that the responsibility of a democratic government is not simply to act as we want, yet also have the tools made available so that we may better able to decide what that should be. This is one of those cases where it must therefore be understood, that as the old adage goes, you can lead horses to water but you can’t make them drink. Let’s hope the horses will understand the role they play in all this is to be willing to drink, so that not only their own thirst yet all's might be satisfied.

For me the bottom line is that science should not simply be viewed as a profession required to be saved, yet better a philosophy to be understood and be utilized by all as to benefit. Without this being realized science is no better then religion, for else we end up with a few priest's with a multitude of blind follower's (believers) with no desire or ability to understand as to question, which above all the aspects of science is the most important. This therefore is what I would see not only as sciences rightful place yet more so its necessary one.

Best,

Phil

Bee said...

Hi Gordon,

That's really scary. But you know what is even more scary? That it doesn't mean anything except that we have kept track of a lot of numbers. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Dear Arun,

Well, as I tried to say in my post, it isn't only necessary to have public funding. It is also necessary to pay attention to how the money is used. Eg wou can spend the same money on a lot of short-term positions, or fewer long term positions - and that makes a difference. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Pope,

It's an interesting thought, but not such a good comparison. As I have argued in previous writings, the problem with the academic system is that people are trying to optimize secondary criteria (like eg the number of papers) instead of primary goals (knowledge discovery).

From this point of view, the situation is hopeless; fighting the system is like fighting against the laws of evolution...sorry to be so pessimistic Bee, but you won't object to that surely? :! -)

Obviously, I have to object to that :-)

You are right in the sense that the process of developing strategies that are optimal for survival is similar in the academic system as it is in ecologic system (as it is in the economic system etc). But the question is why do we have in academia an environment in which nonsensical strategies flourish?

Note that in contrast to the ecological environment it is a man-made one that we could change. I would agree that it is pointless to fight against these strategies as long as they are indeed successfull inside the system. That would be, as you say, like fighting the laws of evolution. What I am fighting for is instead a change of the system, such that other strategies are preferred.

Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Tkk,

This is SO depressing! I mean, he is exactly summing up the major issues. And that thing is from 1999. Sounds quite similar to my writings doesn't it? Except that I can't start with saying "I'm a tenured professor of physics"...

Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Grant,

Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Most of your points would have been addressed in my earlier posts, for example this one, but let me summarize the central argument.

You are repeatedly asking who does the evaluation, who has the power, who makes the decisions. That is the same question I have been asking: where is the rightful place of science, how much risk-taking do we need, and who decides that?

What my answer was supposed to express is that the only way to judge on what is promising and necessary research is to leave that judgement up to the researchers themselves. For that process to work however, they need to have an environment in which their judgement is not skewed by any pressures that don't have anything to do with the question of how interesting a project or how promising a researcher is. The problem is that is presently all too often the case. How can one expect the system to work well then? What I am basically saying is thus, take away that pressure and make sure people have the freedom to judge objectively.

Why do you think certain people deserve decent middle-class-jobs just because they love science?

Whether or not somebody 'deserves' a job isn't the point. What I have been saying is you can spend public money wisely or stupidly. If you want scientists to tackle major problems and have breakthroughs in fundamental research, you'll have to give them jobs that provide an environment in which they can and will do that. These are typically smart and well educated people. They know that if they leave academia they will find a better job outside the academic world. And more and more people do that. That is not surprising. If you want to avoid that, you will have to do something about it.

How do you measure who is "doing well"? Also, you think there is no correlation between "doing well" and "approval of peers"? Or you think that the correlation exists but small? Or irrelevant?

I think the correlation is large, but constantly declining since people's judgement is increasingly based on criteria that divert from the original goal, and influenced by all kinds of other factors they have to take into account, like the money their department will get in etc.

2.) I had in mind mostly in-field change. For starters that would greatly help matters. However, I certainly haven't been saying there shouldn't be any evaluation of whether supporting somebody in such a step is a good idea or not. I am just saying there should generally be more support for these people.

I don't "measure" what people want to learn. If somebody applies for a job in a new field I assume he'd want to learn it.

4) I didn't say I meant financial rewards. Anyway, I think the reason why the peer review system in theoretical physics works so badly is exactly for this reason: it's a time-consuming process that is hardly rewarded. Unless there is more acknowledgement for its importance, it will only get worse. That doesn't have to be financial reward however. We seem to have a different view on how useful writing review articles is. It is my impression that though they certainly serve to document knowledge of a field, they are not worth as much as 'original work'.

one issue you avoided is the evaluation of scientists, their progress and their effectiveness (latter point is relevant since resources are finite). Clearly, if you would be a funding agency head, department chair, hiring committee member, etc, you would be interested in this issue. What's your proposal for this?

It's a good point, it has an easy answer and a complicated one. The easy answer is that all these people in the committees are very intelligent. All you need to tell them is to think about the long-term consequences of their doing. The complicated part is that as long as the system is working as it is, this probably won't help since they would have to act against their own interest. Thus, my suggestion would be to first lower the pressure they are subject to in terms of financial and time constraints, and in terms of easily classifiable research agendas, to give them more freedom. That together with raising awareness how presently applied criteria can hinder progress should be sufficient for a rethinking. Best,

B.

Tkk said...

Bee:
"This is SO depressing!..."

It pains me to post it. But one cannot run away from reality. I was tenured, then moved to industry, now retired. It breaks my heart to see so many younger scientists struggling. I am doing all I can to help and promote.

I disagree somewhat with Prof Katz that "The glut of scientists is entirely the consequence of funding policies." It is a complex problem of society value system having changed, shift of wealth creation centers from hard science to geeky tech, then to finance. Also, a lack of demand of hard science expertise compare to the supply, and lack of exciting and useful discoveries compared to the eras pre/post WW2.

But Bee, that era may be coming to an end. Just look around the world facing fundamental problems of energy, environment, exhaustion of new discoveries to drive new industries. The LHC can be treated as not only a big gamble for discovery, but a 'desperate' attempt to deliver big results to return physics to the glory days. And politicians understood enough to fund it to the tune of billions.

Hang in there.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Tkk,

“But Bee, that era may be coming to an end. Just look around the world facing fundamental problems of energy, environment, exhaustion of new discoveries to drive new industries.”

Are you suggesting that in our times of trouble people may turn to science for the answers. That might indeed be what they need to do, yet I fear it will be exactly the opposite. The trouble is that many of the problems you cite most people today consider science as responsible for creating. No, I’m more fearful of this world wide fundamentalist ground swell of universal ignorance, that ranges from people we consider as our enemies, to most of the general public, who are constantly bombarded primarily with what they should be afraid of, as opposed to what they should have reason to look forward to; with much of the bombardment coming from some scientists themselves.

As far as I can tell, this will only turn around when more people in general stop just simply relying on science, to begin to understanding more of what it is for themselves; at least to the point of understanding what it actually is. For me the first sign of us knowing that the tide has turned is when more know better how to differentiate perceived risk from actual risk, so that they might then be able to distinguish the perception of danger from actual danger and how those then might be prioritized to be managed. This to me suggests what we require first and foremost is many more and better qualified teachers of science and mathematics, as opposed to more to push its frontiers. I think only after an extended period of this will we actually be able to move on.

As only a start science and math in elementary and high school should not be allowed to be considered as options so early on. I would argue just as language has survived to be required and considered as a prerequisite for modern life, then what should we consider science and math as being, other then the most advanced , significant and relevant of these that serves to reflect both our world and reality. In short I’m convinced that the saving of science shouldn’t be seen simply as a tool to help save the world through pushing its frontiers, yet also the method to allow us all to better understand the place we currently occupy.

Best,

Phil

jfromm said...

I wish there would be a change towards more honesty and truth in science. If there is nothing to find out, then the academic systems tends to produce fakers, buzzword jugglers and cheaters as an unintended consequence, people who produce nothing but hot air and cloudy publications.

Although it is the job of a scientist to find out the truth, many scientists do exactly the opposite: they are excellent in hiding and concealing the truth, they are confusing their audience through buzzwords and complicated words, they are good in authentic lying (which is another word for marketing).

Andrei Kirilyuk said...

Your description of today's state of official science is rarely exact, jfromm. You could even add “cheating and misleading reforms” to your list of its major products (“fakers, buzzword jugglers and cheaters, people who produce nothing but hot air and cloudy publications”). See Grant's “questions” (which are in reality answers) above for details and a previous discussion of “black hole information paradox” on this blog as a particular example of thus “advanced” science...

“Although it is the job of a scientist to find out the truth, many scientists do exactly the opposite: they are excellent in hiding and concealing the truth, they are confusing their audience through buzzwords and complicated words, they are good in authentic lying (which is another word for marketing).”

And here is a good example of that authentic property. You have a highly privileged scientific community unified in a very “advanced” institute (actually many of them!) with all imaginable and unimaginable luxury working conditions, freedom of research and unlimited “interdisciplinarity” obtaining its more-than-comfortable funding from a whole group of major private benefactors and obediently joining public funds. And when as a result of those truly paradisiacal conditions, there is nothing but vain, ugly abstractions or equally fruitless pseudo-philosophy solving no problem at all and “attracting” only growing public disgust, then the learned beneficiaries say it's because of the “limits of academic system”, rather than their total professional inaptitude for the proclaimed major purpose, finding out the truth. And if it's like that in such conditions and status, then does one really need to look much further for the “origin” of “problems of science” today? It's but one big Ponzi scheme shamelessly inserted to dominate in the temple of knowledge liberated from any independent “public control” because of imposed “special” status of science exceeding that of any most authoritarian religious dogma. It is already exactly as proposed in the above “reforms”: pay us as much as we tell you and leave us alone to decide ourselves how good we are in our results. Already done and the result is the modern state of fundamental science. Reforming a religion or authoritarian political regime would be a much more honest and sensible task...

See http://arxiv.org/abs/physics/0403084 and http://arxiv.org/abs/0705.4562 for the true change details, but that's quite another story...

watzabatza said...

“We will restore science to its rightful place.”

“We will increase support for high-risk, high-payoff research portfolios at our science agencies.”

~Barack Obama


... Let's just see what he can...

Harbles said...

I refer the assembled multitudes to this item for further research. Start at about time index 06:15.

Tkk said...

Phil:

In time of crisis people will do what's necessary to get themselves out of that crisis. That may range from extreme ingenuity to extreme stupidity. Much depends on leadership.

In the US Obama wants to bring science back to the forefront. Other countries may do same if leadership see reasonable payoff. I am not hopeful of UK from what they have done recently. I am more hopeful of France, Germany and Russia in terms of their support at the professional level.

I am even more hopeful of China, which has a strong strategic national plan on science that invests heavily from secondary education all the way to national infrastructure. (Do you know China is building its own GPS? We know GPS requires deep knowledge of general relativity and implementing that in a sophisticated technological system.) China has learned from its grand mistake of the past few centuries (neglecting western science) and is determined fix it.

What I am saying is each country, and culture, will address our emerging era of crisis in different ways. One cannot under-estimate the degree of human stupidity (which of course played a big role in creating our economic crisis). But I do see an stronger trend towards renewed effort of scientific discovery via national investments. This sort of trend, of course, will take quite a few years to play out. In the end, it is not government who will do science, it is qualified scientists.

Bee said...

Hi Tkk,

I disagree somewhat with Prof Katz that "The glut of scientists is entirely the consequence of funding policies." It is a complex problem of society value system having changed, shift of wealth creation centers from hard science to geeky tech, then to finance. Also, a lack of demand of hard science expertise compare to the supply, and lack of exciting and useful discoveries compared to the eras pre/post WW2.

I agree with you. Academia is not an isolated system. We pick up all kinds of ideologies from the society we are part of, and one of them is certainly the idea that operation for profit is a good thing. That combined with an astonishing faith in the wisdom of that system and that miraculously people's individual interests will result in a desirable overall trend without the need to pay attention how so.

But Bee, that era may be coming to an end. Just look around the world facing fundamental problems of energy, environment, exhaustion of new discoveries to drive new industries. The LHC can be treated as not only a big gamble for discovery, but a 'desperate' attempt to deliver big results to return physics to the glory days. And politicians understood enough to fund it to the tune of billions.

Hang in there.


Thanks for the kind words. You know that I am currently looking for a new job. We will see how it goes. Best,

B.

QUASAR9 said...

Alas Bee, it will always be
measured in $USdollars

how else is one to even start valuing science

Art for art's sake
Science for science's sake
and always
Money for god's sake

Richard Steiner said...

Phil,

Reading through your blog and associated responses makes it pretty clear to me that unbiased science is a very difficult achievement. I can certainly understand your pessimism. I also have a theory on where this bias originates from and why scientists are so tempted to fall away from their idealistic roots.

Science describes the characteristics of space, time and matter. Many Scientists fall into the trap of limiting their minds to only these three aspects of life. Most scientists are also very passionate about what they do hence enters emotional content into the equation which is a random variable more determined by psychological and sociological factors which have nothing to do with space, time or matter, but often force scientists to make irrational decisions that turn theories into facts in their own mind, hence the birth of faith in your work, another random variable that doesn’t have anything to do with space, time or matter.

How does a human scientist deal with this dilemma? Human scientists are not robots that have predictable results on every analysis. They are prone to make mistakes in their equations. They too often fill in data gaps with fictitious data or neglect important data to produce the desired result. How does a human scientist stay an idealist when human nature has such a strong impact?

Scientists could drive out the impure thoughts and try to stay unbiased, but through your pessimism you have proven how difficult this is. Unfortunately, we are mere humans. Humans are emotional creatures that want to live forever and make a difference in this world before they die. When a Scientist has limited the possibilities to space, time or matter, they deprive themselves of their human needs of love, companionship, and to be understood. Depriving themselves of these human needs ultimately results in these needs being met by their work. Fulfilling these human needs within their work produces the random variables that pollute the general scientific body of knowledge.

So what is a scientist to do with their human nature to separate it from their work? There is a way to deal with these impure thoughts that keep polluting the scientific body of knowledge. What if we separated human nature from science? What if we created an environment where a scientist, would take care of their human nature needs away from their scientific work? What if we could allow them to ponder for a while those things outside of space, time or matter independently from their thoughts on their scientific work?

Many Scientists will agree with what I am saying if they understand this aspect about human nature, and many others will not even begin to understand this because they believe they can be pure. But even though they believe they can reach scientific purity in their work, deep down in their inner thoughts they know they can’t, for we are mere humans.

In order to separate human nature from science, there are certain beliefs that have undeservedly entrenched themselves as fact in many scientists’ minds that would have to be dealt with. This would be a very painful experience that would be opposed by a human variable called pride. Things like evolution and global warming would have to be seriously reconsidered, for these are still mere unproven theory’s yet to this day that many scientists have succumb to the level of consensus rather than fact on. Granted there is much evidence to support these theories’s, but there is equal if not more evidence to refute it. These are just two of the major examples where scientist have fulfilled their human needs to make a difference and to explain their lives through their work, entering variables to make a tightly woven web of deceit in their minds that is difficult to be broken.

Human nature wants to be loved, wants to be understood, wants to make a difference in this world, but it will never happen by fixing the results to create a biased outcome. This is where we divorce human nature from science and give a scientist’s human nature a place to thrive and find fulfillment separate of their science. When a scientist places their faith in something not tied to space, time or matter their mind expands to include those things that we cannot see. They are left to explore their spiritual nature in a playground that keeps their mind occupied so their scientific work is not impeded by these variables. They find love and companionship with validation for their emotions and explanation of their mistakes. They get to be free of their prideful judgment because ultimately they understand that it is only science, and not their lives that are at stake.

If science is ever to take its rightful place as Barak Obama wants to encourage, the human nature needs of scientists must be met to keep their findings pure from personal emotions and financial or political agendas. I have witnessed time and time again where scientists ignore this essential part of their human nature just to see it pollute their work. If their work is polluted by bias, how will they ever be able to produce unbiased results?

Faith, Religion and Belief systems are not the enemy, but the solution many scientists miss behind their blind spots. Embrace them for what they are so Scientist can deal with the physical elements without bias.

Paul Stankus said...

Hi Bee --

Your analysis and comments are thoughtful, as usual. But even with all the changes you'd like to see, academic research would still suffer the problem described so eloquently by David Goodstein fifteen years ago, namely exponential growth (new PhD's) pushing against finite resources (permanent jobs). Any improvement in the job situation only delays the problem by a finite interval.

In the current system the number of new physics PhD's trained every year substantially exceeds the number of newly opened permanent jobs in academic research. Katz says the excess is a factor of x2; I would have guessed a bit higher. One can ask the question about any academic system, either the current one or the better one that you imagine: at what point in their careers do you want half the people to exit? Here are a few possibilities:

(i) Training of PhD's should be curtailed compared to the current system, reducing the excess from the start. This could be done by increasing the proportion of "sterile" researchers who don't supervise students, or by changing the structure of grants to have fewer students employed.

(ii) People should be helped/encouraged after they get their PhD to seek/take jobs other than in academic research. Raising the prestige of the masters degree might also divert people away from academic research in a productive way.

(iii) People will quit after they've had their fill of short-term, temporary positions. This is more or less the current system, and it has many drawbacks for both the people and the science just as you have illustrated. Note that making temporary positions more comfortable, more productive, or longer-term doesn't change the basic picture: half the people still need to drop out at some point in this phase.

To me, these options (i), (ii) and (iii) are basically exhaustive, so I can ask you: which would you like to see in your ideal, or at least improved, academic system? Right now we're living with approach (iii), and while it might be improved I'm not sure by how much: for example, lengthening the terms of temporary positions reduces proportionately the number of them that can be available, which would move us toward case (i) or (ii).

So, tell us: how would a better system match supply and demand over the long term? I'm curious for your opinion.

Phil Warnell said...

HI Richard,

“Reading through your blog and associated responses makes it pretty clear to me that unbiased science is a very difficult achievement. I can certainly understand your pessimism.”

First, it should be understood that I’m not a scientist; simply I have a keen interest in it, both as a method of discovery/understanding and also as a method of general assessment and reasoning. As for any spiritual aspect you might think I have, it would be nothing beyond what Einstein would have considered as being as such, which doesn’t relate to anything that I suspect you believe in. That can be best understood that in simply saying I don’t believe in anything, yet rather reason what I consider to be true, with the prevision that it is all subject to change if it can be falsified and is falsifiable. Anything that doesn’t have this as a capability I don’t consider at all, except perhaps to wonder.

It also seems to me that you are saying that many scientists are inevitably flawed, because they don’t have a spiritual center and that their ego’s can lead them to insist their scientific postulates and opinions are true, as in unquestionable. That could happen on occasion with an individual scientist(s), yet the very nature of their philosophy and profession doesn’t carry into science itself, being that attributable to it’s structure, whereby theories are only to be considered as true if they reasonable describe/ predict nature and most important only as long as it hasn’t been falsified and is falsifiable.

If you have read my blog you may be confused since I question how it is that so many scientists exclude the “why” and only stick to primarily consider “how”, or at times “what”. This is not to say that the why has to be one formed of intent, yet could more reasonably be considered simply as the only way it could be. It is true I find this interesting to consider and am discouraged that some scientists don’t even consider it at all. That however doesn’t make them any less a scientist or have what’s required to be a good person.

So then, if you were to ask, do I consider that perhaps reality can only be the way it is since otherwise it just wouldn’t be real, I would say yes. If you were to ask if that it makes it necessary to be resultant of what you would consider as intent, I would say I don’t know; yet have no reason to understand that it should be. This is called doubt, which is the first and foremost prerequisite to science, which of course for the most part is disallowed by many religions.

So in short, I would be happy if nature is found to be as it is because it has no choice, rather then it did for the former I find as reason the later I find as arbitrary and therefore lacking in it, which is by many what is so often sorely confused.

Best,

Phil

bellamy said...

Pessimism is part of a dualistic system. Duality distorts and distracts. Think Kelvin, yo.

Al Scandar said...

Ni!

Clear, objective, propositive.

Despite the debate over the meaning of Obama's declarations, this is one of the best posts on the topic of the current academic system of incentives I've read =)

I don't live in the US, but certainly hope this message, which is now resounding for sometime in the global scientific community, finally gets through over there.

Hugs,

ale
~~
http://cecm.usp.br/~eris/

chimpanzee said...

What Politics Is

A little boy goes to his dad and asks, "What is politics?"
Dad says, "Well son, let me try to explain it this way: I'm the breadwinner of the family, so let's call me capitalism.
Your Mom, she's the administrator of the money, so we'll call her the Government. We're here to take care of your needs, so we'll call you the people. The nanny, we'll consider her the Working Class. And your baby brother, we'll call him the Future. Now, think about that and see if that makes sense,"

So the little boy goes off to bed thinking about what dad had said. Later that night, he hears his baby brother crying, so he gets up to check on him...
He finds that the baby has severely soiled his diaper. So the little boy goes to his parents' room and finds his mother sound asleep. Not wanting
to wake her, he goes to the nanny's room. Finding the door locked, he peeks in the keyhole and sees his father in bed with the nanny. He gives up and goes back to bed.

The next morning, the little boy says to his father, "Dad, I think I understand the concept of politics now."

The father says, "Good son, tell me in your own words what you think politics is all about."

The little boy replies, "Well, while Capitalism is screwing the Working Class, the Government is sound asleep, the People are being
ignored and the Future is in deep shit."