Because “Every attempt to manage academia makes it worse”, we should be more open to alternative ways to pay people to do science.
Especially, it should be possible to get funding for “risky research”.
“Do you want a revolution in science? Do what businesspeople do when they want a technological revolution: Just change the rules a bit […] Create some opportunities for high-risk/high-payoff people […] The technological companies and investment banks use this strategy. Why not try it in academia? The payoff could be discovering how the universe works.”
Lee Smolin, The Trouble with Physics (p. 331)
But my purpose here is not to argue for or against any existing research program. It is to propose that, under the pressure to support programs advanced decades ago by now influential senior scientists, we have forgotten that theoretical physics is most often advanced by people who ignore established research programs to invent their own ideas and forge their own directions. Such people are often, but not always, young people, whose ca- reers are the most vulnerable. If we do not explicitly make room for these kinds of people, they will leave physics. […]
In addition to the importance of selecting individuals over research programs, science as a whole benefits from diverse points of view. When a group of researchers aggressively pursues a research program but has little interaction with either experiment or outsiders, the group tends to overinterpret results, undervalue risks, and complacently postpone facing up to hard questions and negative results. This is groupthink—a well-documented phenomenon in government, intelligence agencies, and business. When it happens in an academic specialty, the fault is not with a scientist who aggressively promotes his or her program. The whole scientific community makes the rules that allow consensus to be established without sufficient evidence.
- Young scientists should be hired and promoted based only on their ability, creativity, and independence, without regard to whether they contribute to any research programs established by older people.
- To prevent overinvestment in speculative directions that may end up as dead ends, departments should en- sure that different points of view about unsolved problems, and rival research programs, are represented on their faculties.
- Scientists should be penalized for doing superficial work that ignores hard problems and rewarded for at- tacking the longstanding open conjectures, even if progress takes many years of hard work. More room could be made for people who think deeply and carefully about the really hard foundational issues.
- Research groups should seek out people who pursue rival approaches, and include them as postdocs, students, and visitors. Conferences in one research program should be encouraged, by those funding them, to invite speakers from rival programs. Instructors should encourage students to learn about competing approaches to unsolved problems, so that the students are equipped to choose for them- selves the most promising directions as their careers advance.
- Funding agencies and foundations should take steps to see that at every level scientists are encouraged to freely explore and develop all viable proposals to solve deep and difficult problems. Funding should go to individual scientists for individual thought and not to research programs. A research program should not be allowed to become institutionally dominant until supported by convincing scientific proof of the usual kind. Before such proof is demonstrated, alternative and rival approaches should receive encouragement to ensure that the progress of science is not stalled by overinvestment in a direction that turns out to be wrong.
- A foundation or agency could create a small number of Einstein fellowships, to go specifically to theorists under 40 who invent their own ideas and programs aimed at solving foundational problems in physics. As Einstein told us, to solve such problems requires concentration for years, regardless of fashion, so these fellowships should offer 10 years of support and go only to theorists whose work cannot be categorized as a contribution to an existing approach.