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In Chains

You need to pay the bills…

[P]eople don't want to rethink everything..especially people who have made so many sacrifices in the name of a false understanding.

David Graeber

My colleague George Caplin likes to quote what he calls the First Theorem of Science, which he attributes to me, but which I remember distinctly as coming from him: It is impossible to convince a person of any true thing that will cost him money. We should probably rename it the First Theorem and drop the Science part.

from A Different Universe by R. Laughlin

However, there is now the problem of making sure that young people have the freedom to wander across boundaries established by their elders without fear of jeopardizing their careers. It would be naive to say this is not a significant issue. In many areas of science we are paying for the consequences of an academic system that rewards narrowness of focus over exploration of new areas. […] we have to keep alive the feeling that our work brings us into contact with something true about nature. Many young scientists have this feeling, but in today's competitive academic environment it is not easy to maintain it over a lifetime of research. There is perhaps no better way to rekindle this feeling than to communicate with people who bring to the conversation nothing more than a strong desire to learn. […] This kind of research is inexpensive, compared with medical research or experimental elementary particle physics, but this does not make it secure. The present-day political and bureaucratic environment in which science finds itself favours big, expensive science projects that bring in the level of funding that boosts the careers of those who make the decisions about which kinds of science get supported. Nor is it easy for responsible people to commit funds to a high-risk field like quantum gravity, which has so far no experimental support to show for it. Finally, the politics of the academy acts to decrease rather than increase the variety of approaches to any problem. As more positions become earmarked for large projects and established research programs, there are correspondingly fewer positions available for young people investigating their own ideas. This has unfortunately been the trend in quantum gravity in recent years. This is not deliberate, but it is a definite effect of the procedures by which funding officers and deans measure success.

from Three Roads to Quantum Gravity by Lee Smolin

No Funding for Risky Research

The mechanisms we have constructed to ensure fairness and quality have the unintended side effect of putting people of unusual creativity and independence at a disadvantage.

  • Those who follow large well-sup- ported research programs have lots of powerful senior scientists to promote their careers. Those who invent their own research programs usually lack such support and hence are often undervalued and underappreciated.
  • People with the uncanny ability to ask new questions or recognize unexamined assumptions, or who are able to take ideas from one field and apply them to another, are often at a disadvantage when the goal is to hire the best person in a given well-established area.
  • In the present system, scientists feel lots of pressure to follow established research programs led by powerful senior scientists. Those who choose to follow their own programs understand that their career prospects will be harmed. That there are still those with the courage to go their own way is underappreciated.
  • 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. To give the advantage to people who are unusually creative and independent, we should change the measures we use to judge quality and promise.

Why no new Einstein? by Lee Smolin

Further Reading

causes/no_intellectual_freedom.1509450602.txt.gz · Last modified: 2017/10/31 12:50 (external edit)