It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Trouble with Science

Well, the 2008 budget is out, and despite earlier noises to the contrary, science funding continues to lag behind inflation. I'm not surprised.

The entire enterprise has problems from top to bottom.

I've been talking about the proposal review process, and I have lots of pent-up frustration about the managerial process.

Linus Torvalds attributes the success of open source to following a scientific openness model, but scientists are closed and university legal teams are cagey and possessive of codes and methods, sacrificing science in their search for the jackpot patent.

In conversation last week at AGU, James complained about the value add in journals, the gatekeepers of science, being provided by unpaid volunteers while the huge financial transfers go to corporate entities mostly concerned with binding and shipping antiquated bits of paper that nobody ever actually looks at anymore.

Atmoz points us to an article lamenting the state of science journalism, which justifiably asks for more participation from scientists, indeed, much more.

Meanwhile, once something even a little bit technically subtle comes across the field of vision of the political sector, there are enough clowns in scientist costumes around to derail any remotely sensible policy.

All of these problems come down to communication; communication among peers, communication across disciplines, communication within institutions, communication with students, and communication with the public. Communication involves listening as well as speaking.

Scientists these days are scrambling to meet their perceived demands. We have little time to absorb the work of others, little time to design meaningful collaborations, little time to communicate. The fraction of achievement to unit work is grossly suboptimal. A few especially energetic and brilliant people manage to thrive, but their work is buried in the vast array of mediocrity that fills the paper journals.

It seems to me that we need to restructure the design of the whole system. We can't add new demands without loosening existing ones. There needs to be ways to fit in a range of talents. The emphasis on gathering information needs to be reduced in favor of vetting it and communicating it. We need more time to think and less time proposing to think. We need to think critically about others' work and generously about them as people rather than the other way round.

It's amazing how much gets done in spite of all this. Imagine what could be achieved if we weren't working with ridiculous antiquated managerial structures.

Update: Interesting, if only tangentially relevant musings here, again via Atmoz:

Even if cognitive enhancers had the potential to shift the standings in the competitions between students and between scholars to a dramatic degree, should we say that there's a problem with the use of these drugs -- or instead with the way the system is set up? Is it more unfair that some professors use a drug that gives them the mental energy to grade papers until 3 AM, or that the workload on professors is such that they have to stay up grading papers until 3 AM in order to have time to meet the obligations of their job?

6 comments:

John Fleck said...

Michael -

It seems as though there's a contradiction between your first point, about the budget, and the rest of the post.

In inflation-adjusted terms, non-defense science spending in the U.S. has flattened over the last several years after soaring (a roughly 50 percent increase since the late 1990s). What you're describing in the bulk of the post describes what sounds like a scientific system that does not deserve the money it is getting. Do we have too much money chasing too little good science?

Michael Tobis said...

It sure doesn't feel like too much money in the trenches.

However, the question of whether what we have is a good investment of public funds is indeed arguable. My lack of surprise at the flat funding is to some extent a consequence of the lack of bang per buck in the past.

(Of course there are other ways we spend our collective resources these days which are arguably even less productive. No doubt that had a bigger impact in the immediate case.)

The way to get more bang per buck, though, is to put more bucks in and direct them to the parts that have been neglected.

Ignoble Gases said...

Thank you for the shout-out Michael.
Concerning:


It seems to me that we need to restructure the design of the whole system. We can't add new demands without loosening existing ones. There needs to be ways to fit in a range of talents. The emphasis on gathering information needs to be reduced in favor of vetting it and communicating it. We need more time to think and less time proposing to think. We need to think critically about others' work and generously about them as people rather than the other way round.


In my experience, the brightest scientists are usually very keen on learning bot their own trade and how to communicate it. Why there couldn't be "...grass roots organization of a coalition of scientists dedicated to accurate, fair, and unbiased scientific reporting." is beyond me. It just requires enough people to care, a few to organize them, and a few media outlets to trust them.

Michael Tobis said...

Hey, IG.

WHile I agree that your proposal is a good thing, I think what you're proposing already exists to a great extent. Consider RealClimate, e.g., and Encyclopedia of Earth.

One problem as I see it is that this sort of behavior is only volunteer behavior. In my field and some others we are up against paid professional disinformation specialists.

Perhaps it is the fields that find themselves most under attack that will take the time to defend themselves. Even here, though, it's only a small part of the communication spectrum we're addressing.

In short, though, we are becoming a write-only subculture. We have so much pressure to produce that we have little motivation to consume. Accordingly the whole enterprise gets weaker the harder we work on our own ambitions.

Ignoble Gases said...

Hey Michael,

I think RC (and to an extence SBs) plays a very different role in science communication - that is, improving communication among scientists.

However, I don't think many have been successful distilling science to the public very well. I could also be full of shit.

Thanks for the EoE link - I hadn't heard of it before.
Cheers,

What about other scientific fields?

Michael Tobis said...

IG, I think your point is well-taken. In particular, though EOE is polished and good, it is very much in its early phase and it's unclear whether it will work.

My main point in response to yours and others is that the problem is part of a broader pattern of undervalued communication in science.

My disagreement with you, if any, is in how much you can realistically expect of volunteer efforts. People really do respond to reward structures, and the more stressed they are, the less they will do in unrewarded directions.