Thursday, August 09, 2007

How to slow down scientific progress

This gem was found by Kevin Z over at the other 95%, who was made famous by our last podcast... He links to an essay in Current Biology which unfortunately I can't seem to access:

The quote is actually from Leo Szilard, the famous Manhattan project physicist. When asked by a wealthy entrepreneur who believes that science has progressed too quickly, what should be done to retard this progress, Szilard replied:
"You could set up a foundation with an annual endowment of thirty million dollars. Research workers in need of funds could apply for grants, if they could make a convincing case. Have ten committees, each composed of twelve scientists, appointed to pass on these applications. Take the most active scientists out of the laboratory and make them members of these committees. …First of all, the best scientists would be removed from their laboratories and kept busy on committees passing on applications for funds. Secondly the scientific workers in need of funds would concentrate on problems which were considered promising and were pretty certain to lead to publishable results. …By going after the obvious, pretty soon science would dry out. Science would become something like a parlor game. …There would be fashions. Those who followed the fashions would get grants. Those who wouldn't would not."
Having sat on a few university committees myself , I know fairly well how time consuming and mind-numbing they can be, sucking the creativity out of you like a hobo with a bottle of mouthwash, leaving you lying naked on the floor shivering with a complete loss of bowel control as you are asked to vote on the tabulation of the minutes...


5 comments:

Kevin Z said...

I sent the paper to you guys using the gmail address above. Its a great read.

Bayman said...

It's a fine balance. On one hand I think it's good for scientists to get out the lab and interact with human beings - on panels with their peers, and also with members of other professions and society at large. Of course this will always require them to get off the treadmill and take some time away from the lab to participate. Discourse and democracy will always detract from short-term productivity and self-interest, but we all need to make the time to maintain a healthy society.

On the other hand, the infiltration of administration and bureaucratic nonsense into universities and scientific institutions is making these processes increasingly self-serving and useless to both actual scientists and society at large.

Hopefully scientists won't blame and abandon the process - interaction and discourse are needed. Rather we should recognize the need to protect these democratic forums from corporate and bureaucratic perversion.

Anonymous Coward said...

Thanks Kevin, that was an interesting read. I guess the whole panel thing gets back to the same discussion we had about juries. If you were given the authority to change the system what would you emphasize. Getting larger panels? perhaps even opening them up to setup some kind of voting feature, and grants would be dugg up or down by other scientists? would you include people from the community, corporations, or lobbies to choose which grants should be funded?

In essence what is the best way to make sure creative people have the resources they need to come up with the next big thing. As pointed out in the paper, often those discoveries come out of left-field and take a long time to be appreciated...

Anonymous Coward said...

The paper actually links to a blog, which is a first for me!

Kevin Z said...

The same blog, DC's Goodscience, has a link to the paper for everyone to download. It at the end of a post about that paper.