Thursday, February 25, 2016

Patience and scientific research

The Washington Post ran this nice column by Alan Lightman the other day, where Lightman points out that the recent LIGO discovery is the result of a long, sustained research program going back decades.  In it, Lightman points out that the modern go-go instant-gratification culture is the antithesis of this, and he hints (but does not say explicitly) that we need to worry about whether we are rewarding the right things in terms of research.

There is no question that we have arrived at a scientific research culture that, at least at the individual investigator level rather than large collaborations, tends to reward rapid progress and nimbleness.  One of the more damning comments that can appear in a proposal or paper review is that some piece of work or proposed research idea is "incremental" or "just the next logical step".   It is hard for me to see in the present environment how an individual investigator could get sustained federal funding to work on a single extremely ambitious, long timescale project unless there were many high-impact milestones along the way.  Of course the right answer is probably that we should support a mixed portfolio of research with inherently different timescales for payoff, but the continual trend of short-termism (how many "research products" came out in the last reporting period?  how fast is some promotion candidate's h-index growing year-over-year?) is not comforting.


Gektor Xalynx said...

Nice article regarding patience, but Lightman continues to perpetuate this nonsense that previous to the discovery of gravitational waves, physicists could only make observations based on electromagnetic phenomena. This completely ignores subfields like particle astrophysics, which studies astrophysics through "observatories" that detect subatomic particles like neutrinos (e.g. IceCube). It's as if they require this kind of straw man argument in order to make the discovery seem more significant. Lame.

Anonymous said...

The scientists are redundant.

AI + Robotics can replace them.

Anonymous said...

It will be interesting a post on the recent experiments which sent the field of topological insulators into a crisis. These are the observation of perfectly conducting edge states in 2D QSH insulators even in the presence of strong magnetic fields as high as 12T [PRL 114, 096802 (2015) and NATURE COMMUNICATIONS 6, 7252 (2015)], and the discovery that non-magnetic impurities can open a gap in the surface spectrum of 3D TRS topological insulators [Nature Communications 7, 10559 (2016)]. These are both in stark contrast with the theoretical predictions.