Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Is science really broken?

Have you ever noticed how when you put PIs together over diner, the conversation inevitably turns to complaining about how hard and unrewarding their careers are. People like to complain: undergrads gripe about courses valuing mindless memorization over understanding, graduate students complain about being poor, post-docs about having no job prospects. But PIs really take the cake when it comes to bitterness. They complain about the incredibly poor success rates of grants, the demands of academia such as teaching and committees, the poor salaries. But worse still, they often feel like they don't get to do the very thing they so long trained for: science. Too many times have I heard an investigator say they write a grant to get it funded rather than to elucidate a particular question they think is interesting. Risk taking and real curiosity-driven research has been relegated to side-projects, when there is leftover money and spare time...
This reminds me of an opinion piece by Lee Smolin (from the perimeter institute in Waterloo) entitled "why no new Einstein?". In it Lee argues that the funding structure discourages risk taking, innovation and creativity:

"It is easy to write many papers when you continue to apply well-understood techniques. People who develop their own ideas have to work harder for each result, because they are simultaneously developing new ideas and the techniques to explore them. Hence they often publish fewer papers, and their papers are cited less frequently than those that contribute to something hundreds of people are doing."

Have things gotten worse with time? Was it really better when Einstein was around? Is it that we do not make new Einsteins, or are they not able to do their work?

This letter in response to Lee Smolin's OpEd paints a pretty bleak picture:

"Then there was DP. Not as bright as SJ, he made up in diligence and creativity what he lacked in brilliance. He gained admittance to a master's and then a doctoral program at a less prominent, large, research-oriented university. Despite having to support himself with part-time jobs, DP excelled in his doctorate, enjoyed the graduate experience, and produced six papers, most as a first author. He then became a postdoc in a well-funded laboratory associated with a famous research site. There he turned out five more papers in just three years—again, most as a first author. DP then looked for employment in physics, and received a single tentative offer, whose financing fell through. Disgusted, he left physics never to return."

This letter sums it even more colorfully:

"Today's scientists are jet-setting, grant-swinging, favor-trading hustlers looking for civil servants who will provide them with a pipeline into the US Treasury. Not only do they get peer pressure to behave this way, they also get arm-twisting from the academic bureaucracy that wants to get its 50% to pay for its bloated overhead. You can't be a used-car salesman and have deep thoughts about the structure of the universe at the same time. You've got to move product—in the case of scientists it's reports and journal publications—and keep moving it even after tenure removes some of the pressure. As for the assorted Beltway Bandits (private industries fulfilling government contract work), some of whom are quite talented, there is no tenure, only the next contract."

If creative young scientists do not get a chance to get a research job, if even established scientists are not given the support to pursue creative ideas, surely that will stifle innovation!

Perhaps innovation will come from unexpected places such as China. I was recently talking to a Chinese grad student. If you think you've got it bad here, think again. He told me of labs where 25-100 students is not uncommon and competition is fierce, where grads work everyday from 8am to midnight, and every weekend. Where he gets paid so little he can only afford the cafeteria meals and shares a room with 4 other students with a rent of $200/year. Yet they have huge modern science institute with top of the line equipment. Which means if we cannot compete in quality, we've already lost in quantity.


anilsonika said...

when governments are busy in their self appointed war and terror threats and spend zillions of dollars in that without batting an eyelid, who has time for what a scientist is doing. I attended one lecture where a famous scientist said at the conclusion"A scientist should be a good salesperson". Now the people who are marketing people by heart are only able to succeed in science also whereas the intelligent ones who give a crap to all these things are never even heard of.

Kevin Z said...

The Lee Smolin quote describes the field of research I am in (deep sea biology). We are always finding new sites and studying animals new to science. Our research will pave the way and lay down the baseline, so hopefully it won't be forgotten but it will only be cited by very few people compared to other biologists working on more popular systems like coral reefs or rain forests.

There are certainly "new Einsteins" out there, I am most definitely not one of them. But with the exception of a few instutes here and there I don't see how any real leaps in progress will be made utilizing government money. There cannot be a X-prize for every major unsolved problem or untested theory, there just isn't the resources, or interest in some cases.

Talking to other graduate students at Penn State, I get the feeling that they are positive about their post-PhD job prospects and 95% I personally know seem to go in science. But not every PhD should go in science too. I've seen several individuals graduate who can't do research (or their own research in any case) and think in terms of the scientific method. Once they are out the (sometimes) nurturing environment of grad school and left to fend for themselves they will get annihilated. I wonder if the US is sometimes graduating some individuals because they want to keep up the rates more than producing quality doctorates. It is unfortunate that some jobs might to to lesser qualified people because of inflated letters of recommendation. This is all on my mind a lot as I am heading into what I believe to be my final year.

But there are jobs in other areas, such as scientific publishing, education, journalism, television and popular media production, etc. that can be just as scientifically rewarding. For instance, I get a lot personally out of blogging and participating in other blogs, to the point I am considering leaning more towards science journalism and areas where I can directly help to increase public understanding of science. Although I will always do research and publish papers on invertebrates, even if I have to do from my own home.


Bayman said...

I don't care what you do KZ, as long as you keep pumping out the funky spineless tunes.