Friday, March 2, 2012

Follow....your instincts?....the leader?....the money?

All of us in science are only human.  We have at least our fair share of failings.  Still, we do try to make useful increments to our collective understand of Nature.

But  because we have to earn a living, want recognition, and need job security, and because science is not generally something you can do without funding, we are under pressures other than just the desire to follow our instincts and do the best science, for its own sake, that we can think of.

It's also true that science, like the rest of society (we're only human, after all!) goes in for fads and fashions.  So a question has been asked, whether the problems in science are due to its fad-following, or to its chasing after money.  That means playing politics.

The answer is that these things--intuition, imitation, and politics--are thoroughly intertwined.  Original thinking and deep insight are both rare commodities, despite each of our desires to manifest these notable traits.  And funding is a group decision: peer review, peer views on what's important for whatever reason, and funders' mandates about what they will support.  We have leaders in science and leaders in funding agencies who, however they got or earned their positions, determine within some bounds what will be funded.  Thus we have to keep an eye on that and do what we need to do to be part of the funded world.

Faddishness is part shallowness and part fish-schooling wherein we chase the smell of the green stuff.  None of these can be avoided, probably.  While each of us may dream that we're the conceptual leader or innovator, few of us really are.  Science does progress, even if more slowly or indirectly towards objectives than we might wish.  But in science, like society at large, utopian thinking--that what we want could, if people just did the right thing, be achieved--is probably more dream than reality.

We use our forum here on MT to note things we believe are misguided or mistaken, as well as hopefully pointing out what seems sound, or what might be a more sound way to view the evidence.  But others have alternative views and platforms for proclaiming them.  It's a hurly-burly world!

One view is that people should see the reality in which we live and go with the flow: do what people at a given time think is cool (follow the fad) and do what in a given time seems viable (follow the funds).  Another view, and basically one that we hold and try our best to practice, is to object and resist where we see that to be appropriate, and try at least to be a corrective voice even if few in power pay any attention or would act differently even if they agree with the points we try to make.  A minority view rarely 'wins', but science is supposed to be about Nature's truth, not just temporary fashions.

In the end of course as we know from history, only history shakes away the chaff so that the grain becomes clearly visible.


Hollis said...

I think the peer review process also can limit new ideas at times. The reviewers usually are in the same discipline (? I believe), and can be heavily invested in the old thinking. So there can be hostility to new ideas, and no feedback suggesting alternatives. I'm not an academician, but I've seen this in plant population genetics -- specifically refusal to look beyond simple mutation and Mendelian inheritance in thinking about evolution. Peer review is necessary too -- so what's the answer?

I'm really hopeful that online publication and especially discussion will accelerate our learning. And you guys are doing a great job of it, thanks.

Ken Weiss said...

Thanks for you thoughtful comment--now and in the past.

Online open forums are able to have a positive effect. They generate their own bevy of chaff, as does every human endeavor, but may be less constraining.

However, the funding system is not that way, unless/until someone thinks of a better method. The problem with peer review is complex. Reviewers are too busy. Most grant applications are read carefully by only one or two reviewers (NIH) and undoubtedly only a few actually look at them in the case of NSF (though they have a somewhat better system, I think). I don't know about peer review for other agencies.

System-think is probably inevitable once something has been in place for a while. It becomes careerist, self-protecting and self-aggrandizing as people build their lives inside it. They advance their own careers, but mechanisms in place to protect that. They hire staff, establish bureaucratic hierarchies, strive for continuity, and so on.

None of it is bad per se, but it is predictable and even laughable, though it can't easily be dislodged. Government and universities are notorious in this respect, and that's a large part of the science system we now have.

Overall, is it better than less science, old-boy science, private science? Who knows? Since most humans are trapped in the need to have a livelihood, and are not original anyway, one can justifiably complain but may be being Utopian: we can imagine better ways, and they seem possible in principle, but can human societies bring them about?

History is not encouraging on that score. On the other hand, the glass is never entirely empty. I feel that one should relentlessly critique 'systems' and push against incremental conformism and for creativity, even if the battle is in a sense a losing one.

Innovation comes in unanticipated bursts as a rule. Those are lucky whose lives place them where they can bring about, or even just participate in, truly new things.