Girl, Interrupting

September 15, 2010

On being a ‘foot soldier’

Or cannon fodder speaking out.

In case you haven’t heard, science funding in the UK is under threat.
From Paul Nurse, who said we need to fund only ‘excellent’ science to Vince Cable who thinks 45% of research in the UK is not-excellent and we should be only funding either ‘excellent’ theoretical work or things that will make money (eg technological advances) its not looking good for science research in the UK.

Of course scientists and science aficionados are dismayed, angry and trying to fight for what they know science to be, and why it needs funding, all kinds of funding.

One of the arguments for funding says science needs ‘foot soldiers’ – where the argument goes a la Newton – that excellent science needs other science which is ‘boring’ to stand on. eg foot soldier scientists.

BUT I think this term should be used with caution, or maybe even not at all.

Foot soldier implies to me ‘cannon fodder’ and this is a bad image for several reasons:

1 – This implies that science is a pyramidal process with those on the bottom being weed-like and just doing the background work for those on the top. Science is not linear, nor that predictable. It grows and recedes in fits and starts and it not just simply marching forward toward a common goal or puzzle to solve. Technology works like this, but not science! Science looks for answers to questions, one paper, research project at at time. You often don’t know what the answer will be and the answers often open up a whole load of other questions and importantly – you NEVER KNOW where a breakthrough will come from over the long term. Lots of important discoveries were actually by accident – when someone was working on something completely different.

2- this term implies that the ‘excellent’ science is at the top and the ‘dull’ science is at the bottom. which calls into question what do you mean by ‘dull’ and ‘excellent’ ? Do you base it on citations? Do you base it on the quality of the Journal it is in? Most scientists have observed that some of the best papers aren’t in Nature, and are actually in more low-impact journals. And if you base this on citations, sometimes bad or wrong science is more highly-cited – because everyone is saying it is wrong. And different scientific fields have different citation levels, just due to the sheer number of people working in a given subject area. Simply put – quantity does not always equal quality.

An important test of scientific research is its longevity – something might be highly cited and highly ‘important’ in one generation of scientists – but then just a blip in the overall body of scientific research over time. What about the Luminiferous aether? And no one has a crystal ball that tells us the most important research in the future. Moreover, sometimes old ‘boring’ research gets revived when new discoveries are made in different areas – Lie Algebra is a good example of this.

As a side note, Cable said we should support theoretically excellent ideas, which I would agree with, but ONLY along with everything else. Theory is an important part of science, but its hard to say what is excellent until the theories are proved or disproved – and this again takes time.

This pyramidal model is exactly the idea that advocates of science are trying to argue against – that science is marching towards some big common goal, with the great people on top – it is but only in the sense that science answers questions and that is a pretty broad goal.

Maybe a better statement is ‘it takes all kinds’, though not as evocative, it actually is perhaps closer to the reality.

The research I do I am not doing so that someone more excellent than me can show up in the future and stand on it and thereby make it excellent. I would bet many other scientists feel this way as well. My research is striving towards its own excellence, whatever that means and maybe only in my mind, because I have some specific scientific questions I want to answer, and you never know, this may be a big breakthrough or it may be a blip in the aether.


1 Comment »

  1. Perhaps not “foot soldiers” so much as “trail blazers.” We all like to think of trail blazing as ridiculously exciting. In actuality, trail blazing is pushing your way through a bunch of crap with less than adequate tools until you figure out the best way to go and the best tools to use. By the time you’ve blazed the trail properly, it’s a lovely walk through the woods that the next guy can use, coming out looking much more “excellent” than the sweaty exhausted trail blazer.

    It also calls to mind the concept of standing on the shoulders of giants. The giants are the guys who did all the grunt work to set the foundations to excellence to begin with.

    Comment by Claire — September 15, 2010 @ 2:40 pm | Reply

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