Monday, March 3, 2014

A "Question This Answer" award program?

It's cliché that old people who remember how things once were are unhappy about how things now are.  Of course, this can always be attributed to senility or the yearning of the old crew for their particular "good old days"; often those days were old but not so good.  But sometimes and in some ways, they really were better, but only those who lived through them can do their best to try to make younger people aware of what they've lost, and could--with enough drive and will--recapture.

Manoj Samanta, a regular MT reader and correspondent thoughtfully sent this link to a discussion by Nobel winner Sydney Brenner about his particular good old days in genetics.  If you read it, you'll see that his points are not new.  You've seen us mention them many times here.

An institutionalized, bureaucratized, well-funded System may have its good points, but it also becomes ossified,  self-protective and self-perpetuating.  It loses the freshness, or frisson, of its original mission, that motivated energized, creative thinking.  This kind of phenomenon is important  in all areas of human life, but our concern is science.

Scientists are now employees rather than professionals, to a great extent.  They work for a layered set of institutions (their universities, their funders, the media on which they depend, etc.).  Students are their serfs.  Graduate students and even post-doctoral fellows are typically assigned a piece of the Boss's grant project and a schedule on which to deliver 'results'.

"Answer this question"
The bottom line is basically that a grant was proposed to ask a question and the funds were given to answer it.  But because the "Answer this Question" system has evolved over the past decades to hide in well-planned and conservative safety behind incremental change, reports, meetings, forms, new large-scale technology, and a rush to publish in quantity rather than in a more measured fashion, it can stifle really new ideas that are problematic and not at all guaranteed to succeed.

Even in my own time, as a graduate student it was my responsibility to conceive of my own research problem.  My adviser was just that--an adviser.  My project wasn't his project or his work--he did plenty of his own (because, in part, he didn't have to spend all his time writing grants).  It was up to me to frame the question I wanted to address, show him that it was worth addressing, and then figure out how to do it.  In my case, and this is important these days, no funds were needed (it was a theoretical, computer-based project).  If it flopped, well, no PhD unless I thought of a different project.

It didn't flop, fortunately for me, and I went on to a post-doc in a mighty medical school for a mighty intimidating figure in human genetics.  But he basically also gave me and the other post-docs in his group the same sort of freedom:  if it was related to the general area of work (human genetic variation and its origins), he would support us in what we chose to do.

Those were heady days.

We think it would be wonderful if someone, with some resources and the foresight to do it, would implement a kind of retro- program that, at least for some lucky students or post-docs, would resuscitate the environment for creative thinking; Brenner, in the interview, is doing something along these lines. He's lucky, because he has the stature and perhaps resources or leverage on resources to make it happen.

Here has been be my idea:

"Question this answer!"
The most incisive way to do new science is not just to push the proverbial 'cutting edge' of a field another few millimeters, the way thousands of hapless soldiers have had to sacrifice their futures for a few meters of cratered territory.  It is not to further their mentor's career nor to learn how to operate just the same way for the next 40 or more years.  No.  It is different.

Instead, we would like to see funds available for a student who would take accepted wisdom, and question it:  What if the standard wisdom isn't true?

Funding for a "Question this answer!" research program for students could be exciting for everyone, student and mentor alike, and for the general community.  Such funds and support will have to come from someone not so timorous as to venture forth, not from institutions so stodgy they ought to be of life support.  That's because most things they fund won't go very far.....

But those that do will change the world.


Holly Dunsworth said...

Sounds like something Alan Alda would support.

Manoj Samanta said...

> Even in my own time, as a graduate student it was my responsibility to conceive of my own research problem. My adviser was just that--an adviser.

I was fortunate enough to find such a professor in mid-90s, and did not know that other students did their PhDs differently. That realization came in early-2000s after interacting with biology students.

> Question this answer

Yeah, do that and you will be labeled all kinds of deniers - 'evolution denier', 'Darwin denier', 'ENCODE denier', 'global warming denier', etc.

Ken Weiss said...

We should not be intimidated by deniers from questioning our assumptions and theories. Some things, like the fact of evolution, seem unsuitable for fundamental questioning. But many aspects of evolutionary biology, genome function (re: Encode), gene mapping and so on, deserve careful scrutiny.

Global warming needs to be questioned in terms of the quality of the various types of data and, probably, the strength of the conclusions about human agency. But this is not the same as stupidly denying what facts clearly show.

So I don't think the denier-labeling should slow us down one bit in seeking to find how nature really is. Should Galileo not have questioned Aristotle, because the Church would not like it?

Manoj Samanta said...

Galileo got appreciated many years after his death, whereas most 'scientists' of today want instant gratification (retweets, mentioned in media, etc.). In his day, Galileo got tried by the government, recanted his theory under the threat of death penalty and was under house arrest for the rest of his life. Also, most people in his neighborhood (southern Europe) thought he was a crank anyway.

I am not sure I can inspire a student (or professor) of today with that prospect - definitely not in the USA. I do not know what made Brenner move to Singapore, but definitely he made a smart choice.

Chris Amemiya said...

Professor Brenner has always been an inspiration, encouraging us not to settle for the "mopping up" experiments, but rather expand the mind and question and develop new ways of looking at things. But the powers that be that largely control the funding purse strings don't share this philosophy and there has been a large trickle down effect with the reviewer base for grants at NIH and NSF... everyone is so conservative and risk averse. As a former NSF program director and current NIH study section member, I know this first hand. The exciting but possibly against-the-grain science requires that the program officers take the risks to fund those projects that may actually fail... Eric Lander, despite being involved in massive Center-type efforts, knows full well the power of investigator-initiated R01 type grants and the necessity of funding more offbeat projects: