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.

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April 25, 2010

Should scientific funding really be MORE elite?

Filed under: science — sylviamclain @ 4:55 pm
Tags: , , ,

or how to creatively hamstring scientific progress….

Funding the scientifically elite is fundamentally short sighted.

The new (or almost new) head of the Royal Society in Britain, Sir Paul Nurse, wants to reform scientific funding – joy!
Something does need to be changed, as funding to do scientific research is shrinking to the point where it is almost non-existent in the UK and other parts of the world.

But what Nurse proposes will in reality make the situation worse– he wants to make funding more elite or in his words – “I think this has got to be solved really by having support systems that can reflect the fact that some people are very, very good”

Ignoring for the moment the class-based, bigoted language problems with Nurse’s statement – even though he says he is really non-elitist in other parts of his life – I am sure he has lots of friends who are not elite; this is going the wrong way for funding in fundamental scientific research. The system already funds these people who are very, very good; so do they get even more money at the expense of everything else?

Nurse also says “Much of the [current non-elite] work is worthy but the question is, do we have enough at that top end who make real discoveries?”

This ignores the fact that that boring ‘worthy’ science is what is needed for the ‘top end’ elite to make those real discoveries…

As Issac Newton once said, ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ even though Newton himself liked to squash the opposition like small ants (Newton, wasn’t a nice guy) – the point is well taken. Before we can get to the sexy stuff, there is lots of detailed graft you have to do… if you stop funding anything that is not a top discovery – you strip the backbone of science.

Funding the elite would also obliterate the important discoveries that no one ever expected; and kill some important research just because the funders presuppose that it is crap – Lord Kelvin (who was a very, very good scientist back in the day) once said that ‘radio has no future’ and that ‘X-rays were a hoax’, it is probably a good thing that Lord Kelvin wasn’t in charge of handing out scientific funding to who he thought was elite.

Nurse only really has a point when you think about industrial or applied research which solves ‘societal problems’ and has a specific goal. Arguably the best example of this is the Manhattan project which had a specific goal – build a nuclear weapon. The US government hired the best ‘elite’ scientists as well as thousands and thousands of the presumably non-elite – and in the end, they were successful. In fact government and industry should do more of this – using focused big-cash methods to solve problems such as for alternate energy to fossil fuels but they, TOO, need to keep the funding up even when the science seems slow or not a ‘top discovery’ – science takes time and, again, a whole lot of graft. (As an aside the Royal Society and similar funding bodies don’t typically have a large amount of money anyway – so these ‘elite’ funding methods would be like firing a couple of mail room clerks to save costs at Lehman Brothers.)

But there is a difference between industrial (or applied) research and fundamental research.

Both use scientific methods to solve problems but fundamental research is considered distinct from applied research. As a loose definition, ‘fundamental research” (such as that which is funded by the Royal Society) is academic. It is research that may not have a direct application which is apparent or immediate but does actually add to the wider scientific body of knowledge. And applied research is well, applied.

The line between fundamental and applied research is often fuzzy. Some fundamental research eventually leads to practical applications – the discovery of the neutron for instance was fundamental, but led to lots of industrial applications in the long run and the big government funded NASA program brought us Velcro, same idea – you never know where science may go and what discoveries will be made.

And Sir Nurse should know better.

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