Saturday, July 4, 2009

Taking a Swing at How to Improve Science

The following is in response to a post made by a commenter on the blog Backreaction. It was inspired by a proposal made by another of its commenters. I post this as being somewhat of an experiment, but mostly as to not clog up the aforementioned blog with my spontaneous and arguably simply whimsical thoughts:-)

Hi Andrei,

This may seem as to be a silly response for one such as you, yet it is resultant of finding I had a little time on my hands, which allowed me to read more carefully the exchange you had with Bee and some others. What confuses me in all this, is that you haven’t actually addressed the central tenet and concern expressed by Dr.Charlton. That was of course how we might identify those few individuals he considers being the ones more likely to make ground breaking discoveries, when nurtured properly and afforded a more suitable environment. What you seemed to have actually addressed is what constitutes to being good scientific direction and citing our current one not representing as being such.

There was some reference made to Kuhn and alike, who addressed the historical aspects of discovery in science, yet not so much the characteristics of those who are the most successful at it. In the end however I see both concerns having simply little relevance, as long as what’s defined as being science hasn’t changed too drastically since the time when Bacon and Descartes first outlined as to what this actually is. I myself have not found anything particularly different in modern times, from those of its beginnings, where of the theories proposed, the only ones accepted as true extensions of our understanding of the physical world, would be those supported by experiment, which corresponds to prediction. . For instance I’m not aware of any theory of quantum gravity developed having been accepted in such a context.

Instead of you addressing the question at hand, you changed the focus to raising your own contention, being that sciences suffers due to the researchers being pampered and cared for too much, with this in turn lowering their ambition and quality; leaving most content as being comfortably sustained, while only achieving mediocrity at best. I however find more reason to agree with Bee's perspective on this and yet would go further still . So, what's found in following being what that might entail. This I will attempt to explain with the aid of an analogy, which I find to be appropriate. This analogy is to compare how golf was improved by way of its golfers, through changes in it structure and organization, with how to improve science by way of its scientists with the same. I know it may sound unrelated, yet bare with me.

So to begin, if we look at the history of golf we find it had its beginning as simply a game, created to be enjoyed in the context of improving one’s own ability, in the background of competition. Later their where prizes offered for the winners of some of the games, first individual matches and then tournaments, for which the rule then was only to the victors go the spoils. However, as time progressed it was realized there was interest growing in this by a increasing sector of the populous and as such money to be made. Therefore, to optimize this potential it would be necessary to increase the number of skilled golfers and raise the level of competition. To accomplish this, a more effective method needed to found, which today in North America is the one created and administered by what became the PGA.

Subsequently, this body created a predefined number of assured tournament eligible spots, for which to be awarded one it is required to learn the basic skills, followed by both improving and proving yourself through some layers of advancement confirmed by test and competition.. These spots however are not made permanent and require one to maintain and improve ones level of skill, measured in terms of how successful one is from year to year that would entitle one to maintain being eligible.

Next, it was decided that through the course of the season it’s no longer the rule that the winner of each tournament is the only one to receive a reward, yet it is divided such that the winner receives the largest and most significant share, followed by a progressively diminishing portions, decided according to torunament placement, some going to all players who had made the cut for each tournament. What it amounts to is that although the best of all the players make the most money, nearly all who maintain their status as a player make what many would consider as being a very good living. The end result is the skill and performance of the players today is at an extremely high level. Also, the game over time has improved and continues to improve rapidly, which in turn has increased public interest allowing for further growth.

So you might ask, what does this all have to do with the success of science, by way of its scientists, in regards to its own corresponding structure and control? I think it can be already recognized there are many parallels between golf and science, starting from its beginning as something that was first only pursued from a personal gratification/growth perspective, progressing to where it is now a professional endeavour. The recruitment, training and placement also have much in common, as is the number of positions available and what’s required to assure and maintain one. The only exception to this is the practice and awarding of tenure, which has been argued is something to be perhaps only reserved for those who teach as well as add to the discipline..

The question to ask then is, why it that while golf and science appear as having so much in common, relating to its beginning and development, golf has enjoyed so much more relative success? Some might suggest as reason, that there are only certain heights one can reach and perhaps these are already being approached in science. However, the same could be said for golf yet it continues to grow. I would further contend if science has neared the limit, it certainly hasn’t yet delivered what we all thought it capable of or expect, so that’ can’t be it.

No, rather I find it rests with three subtle, yet distinct differences. First being the money that scientists can make by those that contribute (discover) the most, is nothing compared with what one receives via the victories of golf and more so those that are the backbone of it all make far less than the average tour player.. Second, when you compare the general interest in golf, with that of science, again golf is far ahead in this regard , which in turn results in increasing the number of golfers, swelling the pool from which to select for the professional ranks; as well as generating additional revenues for the ones that do become professionals. Finally, the public recognition of a professional golfer to that of a scientist is again not even comparable and as such this has the scientist’s true value downplayed from what it should be in the greater view.

So it is clear to me several things are required to change this for the better. The first being we need to substantially raise the general awareness and interest in science, as to have it seen as a valuable, challenging and rewarding (monetarily and or personally) human endeavour. Next, we must strengthen the ranks of the professionals by greatly increasing their remuneration and program funding, with more for those that prove successful, reaching levels that would seem almost unimaginable when compared to the current ones (books and personal appearances not included) :-) . This would include as in golf having the average professional financially sustained at a level that properly defines their place and necessity in the whole scheme of things; with it consequently being something seen as to encourage them to work hard to maintain, while in turn having greater room for improvement.

In addition, the time periods would have to be adjusted to afford a reasonable period in which to achieve result(s).. Considering that a PGA player gets another year if they only stays within his current predefined range and further given two years for winning one single tournament. Therefore, with all things considered, I don’t see why a researcher's initial contract shouldn’t be three years, with any significant result fetching an immediate five year extension. When it comes to heads of faculties, if required at all, I think this concept should be diminished or altered as to emphasise the importance of result, over that of seniority or long past achievement This would serve to have things remain dynamic, instead of becoming static. In the end however, it is the change in perception all this brings that is the central difference maker and therein somewhat ironic in it being something most scientists otherwise would dismiss out of hand, being considered as merely subjective:-)

To conclude you might say why didn’t I use a team sport as an analogy or corporate structure? The reason being I still would contend that even today, true significant advances and breakthroughs are the product of a final push by individuals or sometimes perhaps small groups. Yes, they are dependent on their peers, for direction, new concepts and inspiration, yet it’s that push, composite of their own intelligence, effort and fortitude(and yes at times a little luck) that in the end has them succeed .