Monday, May 28, 2012

Big Science, Stifling Innovation, Mavericks and what to do (if anything) about it

We want to reply to some of the discussion and dissension related to our recent post about the conservative nature of science and the extent to which it stifles real creativity.  Here are some thoughts:

There are various issues afoot here.

In our post, we echoed Josh Nicholson's view that science doesn't encourage innovation, and that the big boy network is still alive and well in science.  We think both are generally true, but this doesn't mean that all innovators are on to something big, nor that the big boy network doesn't ever encourage innovation.  Some mavericks really are off-target (we could all name our 'favorite' examples) and funding should not be wasted on them.  The association of Josh Nicholson with Peter Duesberg apparently has played a role in some of the responses to his BioEssays paper.  That specific case somewhat clouds the broader issues, but it was the broader issues we wanted to discuss, not any particular ax Nicholson might have to grind.

One must acknowledge that the major players in science are, by and large, legitimate and do contribute to furthering knowledge, even if they do (or that's how they) build empires.  There is nonetheless entrenchment by which these investigators have projects or labs that are very difficult to dislodge.  Partly that's because they have a good track record.  But only partly.  They also typically reach diminishing returns, and the politics are such that the resources cannot easily be moved in favor of newer, fresher ideas.

It's also true that even incremental science is a positive contribution, and indeed most science is almost by necessity incremental: you can't stimulate real innovation without a lot of incremental frustration or data to work from.  Scientific revolutions can occur only when there's something to revolt against!

If we suppose that, contrary to fact, science were hyper-democratized such as by anonymizing grant proposers' identities (see this article in last week's Science), the system would be gamed by everyone.  Ways would be found to keep the Big guys well funded.  Hierarchies would quickly be re-established if the new system stifled them.  The same people would, by and large, end up on top.  Partly--but only partly--that's because they are good people.  Partly, as in our democracy itself, they have contacts, means, leverage, and the like.

And it's very likely that if the system were hyper-democratized a huge amount of funding would be distributed among those who would have trouble being funded otherwise.  Since most of us are average, or even mediocre, most of the time, this would be a large expenditure if it were really implemented relative to a major fraction of total resources,  contributions likely watered down even further than is the case now.  But that kind of  broad democratization is inconceivably unlikely.  More likely we'd have a tokenism pot, with the rest for the current system.

Historically, it seems likely that most really creative mavericks, the ones whom our post was in a sense defending, often or perhaps typically don't play in the stodgy university system anyway.  They drop out and work elsewhere, such as in the start-up business world.  To the extent that's true, a redistribution system would mainly fund the hum-drum.  Of course, maybe the budgets should just be cut, encouraging more of science to be done privately.  Of course, as we say often on MT, there are some fields (we won't name them again here!) whose real scientific contributions are very much less than other fields, because, for instance, they can't really predict anything accurately, one of the core attributes of science.

One can argue about where public policy should invest--how much safe but incremental vs risky and likely to fail but with occasional Bingos!

It is clear from the history of science that the Big guys largely control the agenda and perhaps sometimes for the good, but often for the perpetuation of their views (and resources).  This is natural for them to do, but we know very well that our 'Expert' system for policy is in general not a very good one, and we keep paying for go-nowhere research.

Perhaps the anthropological reality is that no feasible change can make much difference.  Utopian dreams are rarely realized.  Maybe serendipitous creativity just has to happen when it happens.  Maybe funding policy can't make it more likely.  Such revolutionary insights are unusual (and become romanticized) because they're so rare and difficult.

The kind of conservative hierarchy and tribal behavior are really just a part of human culture more broadly.  Still, we feel that the system has to be pushed to correct its waste and conservatism so it doesn't become even more entrenched.  Clearly new investigators are going to be in a pinch--in part because the current system almost forces us to create the proverbial 'excess labor pool', because the system makes us need grad students and post-docs to do our work for us (so we can use our time to write grants), whether or not there will be jobs for them.

Again, there is no easy way to discriminate between cranks, mavericks who are just plain wrong, those of us who romanticize our own deep innovative creativity or play the Genius role, and mediocre talent that really has no legitimate claim to limited resources.  The real geniuses are few and far between.

A partial fix might be for academic jobs to come with research resources as long as research was part of the conditions for tenure or employment.  Much would be wasted on wheel-spinning or trivia, and careerism, of course.  But it could at least potentiate the Bell Labs phenomenon, increasing the chance of discovery.

We cannot expect the well-established scientists generally to agree with these ideas unless they are very senior (as we are) and no longer worried about funding....or are just willing to try to tweak the system to make it better.  When it's just sour grapes, perhaps it is less persuasive.  But sometimes sour grapes are justified, and we should listen!


peterfirefly said...

That system doesn't work too well, either. It is pretty much what we used to have here in Denmark -- and it lead to buildings filled with "nulforskere" (nil-researchers) who either didn't publish anything for years (nor did they do much research) or they published "articles" that were really more like letters to the editor or op-eds, mostly in journals run by themselves or people like them.

Forcing them to publish and forcing them to compete for research grants clearly improved things (and quickly, too!) -- and also (predictably) lead to much wailing and complaining from the cannots and the not-up-to-its.

Removing some of their autonomy and taking the first few steps back to having management (read: adult supervision) and clear lines of responsibility since the late sixties also (predictably) lead to gnashing of teeth and woe-is-me's.

It /also/ improved things a lot.

So be careful what you wish for, it could be a lot worse. In fact, it probably /will/ be a lot worse if you get (some of) your way. We've been there and it wasn't nice.

The put-bright-people-in-one-place thing does sound nice, though. Ever looked into the history of MIT building 20?

Ken Weiss said...

I am old enough to have seen how the USSR and eastern bloc's science was way behind the West's, partly because of guaranteed funding (partly because limited funding, too).

We have what we call 'dead wood' (like nulforskere) here, we did in the past and we still do, but much of it now consists of publishing the kinds of things we criticize, rather than nothing. With the proliferation of journals anyone can publish a lot.

I don't mind competition, but I do (personally) object to the empire building our system has led to.

A more predictable or even 'socialized' system will have its faults. There will be cheaters, lazy resource-wasters, and so on. But to me, the increased likelihood of major insights compensates for the people who will exploit a softer system. And nobody resents them more than I do, since I work pretty hard.

I think a 'middle' ground is possible with various kinds of reform. No system will be perfect.

And our system entrenches not just some empire builders, which is nothing new (and was a major criticism of classical European one-professor modes of operation), but makes the system do 'safe' and incremental research. And it leads to dissembling (or would one say 'dishonesty' which is the proper word) in many ways, and to explicitly conservative grant proposals.

I am, at least, not whining about this because I can't get grants. I've had steady support for almost all of the last 40 years, and still do. I have a chair that protects me if I want to be a lazy exploiter of the system, too.

I don't know MIT Bldg 20, though I have heard of it. I believe that if you give some smart and clever people some resources (it needn't even be huge), and _time_ without pressure to deliver a steady stream, you have better odds (and it is only probability, not certainty) of more innovative results.

The recent centennial celebrations of Alan Turing's work is one indicator of this, and so are many biographies of major 20th century innovators. And then there's Darwin, who had independent means.

Anyway, every system has its faults and needs to be criticized to keep them within some bounds, I think.