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Physicist Peter Higgs: No University Would Employ Me Today 308

Posted by Soulskill
from the there's-always-money-in-the-banana-stand dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Peter Higgs, the physicist who laid the groundwork for the discovery of the Higgs boson and winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics, says he doubts any university would give him a job today. Higgs says universities wouldn't consider him productive enough — though the papers he published were important and of high quality, he didn't have the volume necessary for serious consideration in today's competitive employment environment. 'He doubts a similar breakthrough could be achieved in today's academic culture, because of the expectations on academics to collaborate and keep churning out papers. He said: "It's difficult to imagine how I would ever have enough peace and quiet in the present sort of climate to do what I did in 1964." Speaking to the Guardian en route to Stockholm to receive the 2013 Nobel prize for science, Higgs, 84, said he would almost certainly have been sacked had he not been nominated for the Nobel in 1980.' His comments highlight the absurdity of the current system for finding researchers in academia. How many researchers of Higgs' caliber have been turned down for similar reasons?"
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Physicist Peter Higgs: No University Would Employ Me Today

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  • I can confirm that (Score:5, Interesting)

    by gweihir (88907) on Saturday December 07, 2013 @12:43PM (#45627019)

    Doing actually good research takes a lot of time. It is a sure way to not get tenure or to not even being considered for a position in the first place. It starts with your PhD taking longer than the ones of the streamlined cretins that never will have a deep though in their whole career. Academic research is pretty much dead at this time, what is being done is industrial research on the cheap and often with very low quality.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday December 07, 2013 @12:55PM (#45627109)

    You've got it backwards - reviews tend to improve scientific work.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday December 07, 2013 @12:59PM (#45627133)

    The problem is not science research. The problem and one which can be solved is that we have a pyramid in the research community. Thousands of low wage postdocs doing the grunt work for a small number of people that have tenure. And very very few of those postdocs if anything make it into a position when they gain access to tenure. And if that's the case they have to wait decades to get it. Now think to how things were 100-80-70 years ago. The pyramid was much less skewed, and young post docs actually had a good chance of gaining tenure after a normal length of time.
    The corrective measure is not to increase producing thousands of insignificant research papers, but actually limit those that can enter into a science career. Make the exams very difficult, pick the brightest of the brightest. Give postdocs positions to them. Of course you must pay them accordingly so no more slave wages. And then within 10-15 years grant them tenure. And for God's sake send them into retirement when they get to 65-70 years of age.
    Can politics accept such a situation ? The answer is left to the reader. :)

  • by mx+b (2078162) on Saturday December 07, 2013 @01:07PM (#45627179)
    I've often wondered lately if there are enough dissatisfied PhD-dropouts and overworked junior professors that if we got together, we could start a new college and directly compete against these attitudes (both the problems with professors and research, and the problems with the student curriculum and lack of teaching enthusiasm in general). I am quite seriously interested in doing exactly this if I could build up a coalition and some funding.
  • Re:This (Score:4, Interesting)

    by ColdWetDog (752185) on Saturday December 07, 2013 @01:35PM (#45627367) Homepage

    No, it's not forgotten. Just not emphasized. There is nothing in the Big Book of How Science Is Done that says 'progress' has to happen. There are fits and starts. TImes when people seem to be making headway in some fields, not in others. Times when research is well funded and times when it isn't. Times when society needs to be introspective and re evaluate what it's doing and how it's doing it (perhaps now).

    There is no single best way here. At present, there is a whole bunch of crap science being done, but there are also pretty impressive gains in knowledge on a regular basis. I certainly can't keep up with anything other than a tiny fraction of it. Higgs is probably right that he could not get a University job at present, mayhaps he could get some rich billionaire to keep him in funds for a couple of decades (the usual way science was funded before big government - got us into the Industrial Revolution).

  • by serviscope_minor (664417) on Saturday December 07, 2013 @01:48PM (#45627483) Journal

    I very much think you will find it is these days.

    RCUK have thankfully acred to reverse this. To compete in university rankings in the UK you submit at most 4 papers from the past 5 years. No others count.

  • by sjames (1099) on Saturday December 07, 2013 @01:49PM (#45627495) Homepage

    How about forgetting the metrics obsession and focusing on actually assessing worth. Yeah, yeah, it's so hard to do that waaaaaah. The obsession with metrics is doing a lot of harm all over.

    In particular, the quantity over quality which exists primarily because any lazy fool can count quantity but quality takes actual effort to assess.

    Which is better, 100 metric tones of cholera infested dirty water or 1 kg of antibiotic? More and more, employers are preferring the dirty, infectious water.

  • by Kwyj1b0 (2757125) on Saturday December 07, 2013 @02:09PM (#45627621)

    The system isn't designed to support outliers - no one in the auto industry complains that they are having Ph.Ds design cars using CFD simulations and a lot of technical know-how. Would Ford have been able to start an automotive company and be challenging today? These moments of individual brilliance changing a field are few and far between. The entire system is geared towards improving the average, rather than gambling on the outliers.

    Another differences is that the nature of research has changed as well (at least in the engineering side). Even a brilliant researcher requires massive computational facilities, expensive equipment, and a lot of programming. So they hire grad students and supervise them, which needs grant money. To convince your sponsors that they are getting their moneys worth, you need a lot of publications. If the sponsorship mentality is - "see what you can do, we aren't going to be looking at publication count", things would be quite different. But can you imagine the outrage if an academic gets a one million dollar grant and turns out one paper on the effect of honey-bees on rainfall or some such topic? The NSF is being held up as a political punching bag. Everyone is in a CYA mentality. Not the "try your best, and if it doesn't work we will still stand behind you because we want to cultivate an environment of innovation." mode.

  • by davidannis (939047) on Saturday December 07, 2013 @02:11PM (#45627639) Homepage
    You take a young researcher who has put 7 years into a PhD and 3 into a postdoc, have them write grants that on average grant 20% of applicants funding, and give them a mandate to publish or kiss their career goodbye. They can't take a chance on looking at a hypothesis that has a small chance of revolutionizing their field, because if it doesn't pan out they are screwed. So, the researcher chooses a hypothesis that is safe. They spend a year or two gathering data at great expense. Now, if that data comes back and is ambiguous there is a strong incentive to use the data set to test other hypotheses. The problem with that is eventually you find a hypothesis that gives significant results just by chance. Some of the solutions are to:
    1. 1. Evaluate based on more than just publications. Look at what the scientist did, why they did it, and how they did it.
    2. 2. Get journals to publish negative results. That way if you test a theory and find it is wrong, it still counts as successful research.
    3. 3. Set aside 20% of research funds to fund replication of published studies. Right now there is no downside to publishing a result that is likely spurious because nobody is likely to figure it out for decades. If a researcher knows that there is a 20% chance his study will be replicated the following year it will make him very careful to do things right. Make reproducing experiments count toward career progression.
    4. 4. Include grant applications with the papers that they produce. That way readers can see if the hypothesis tested in the paper is actually the one that the scientist set out to test. If not, there should be information on why and on how many alternate hypotheses were tested.
  • by PopeRatzo (965947) on Saturday December 07, 2013 @03:05PM (#45628005) Homepage Journal

    Universities don't care about educating students

    Universities cannot care because they are not human beings, they are institutions.

    It's up to the teachers to care. This is my belief as a lifelong teacher in higher education.

    I don't mean to demean your point, but anthropomorphization of institutions, corporations, governments, etc has made it easier for us to get into the situation we're in today, at least in developed nations.

    In the US, institutions are supposed to care, corporations have human rights and religious beliefs and can be involved in elections and government is ascribed all manner of human attributes. It cheapens the human attributes and it gives non-human entities an exalted status they do not deserve.

  • by ceoyoyo (59147) on Saturday December 07, 2013 @04:47PM (#45628599)

    Tenure historically was important for arts and philosophy. The idea was that you could say things that were unpopular in safety because nobody could fire you.

    Research professors don't really have terribly meaningful tenure anyway, because if you aren't performing you can't get grants and/or the university may deny you students. Either of those essentially means you're washed up.

  • by Antique Geekmeister (740220) on Sunday December 08, 2013 @09:07AM (#45632109)

    Until the fifth year, at which time they'd better have the papers ready for the performance review and any discussion of tenure track. So I'm afraid that's not a really meaningful exemption unless that professor has no plans for tenure track. It can even be worse. I've seen very gifted professors rejected for tenure, not because their research was not meaningful, but because their teaching was _so good_ that it frightened the existing staff into thinking that they'd have more expected of them. In one case, an intern at work asked me to help. I read the research papers: they were solid work, and far more clear than most other papers I'd seen in the field. Helping was politically awkward, and disenchanted me with a great deal of tenure evaluations. I do believe I did manage to help: partly by discussing the technical implications of the work with several of his reviewers, and partly by introducing him socially to the secretaries of the most recalcitrant professors. It's _amazing_ how much those secretaries control the information flow to and from their employers.

    The apportionment of credit for academic papers is rife with both confusion and abuse. The need for citable publications is so large that people who had no meaningful involvement with a project are being listed as authors, to protect their academic careers. Other students or technical staff who collaborate extensively are ignored in favor of tenure track staff, to help reach their required number of publications. I'm afraid that the result is often "co-authors" who have no idea what the original research established, or how. I've even seen listing someone as a "co-author" used to prevent them from publicly disagreeing with the results. The "co-author" status is, I'm afraid, may never have been a reasonable way to measure research publication due to frequent abuses.

The shortest distance between two points is under construction. -- Noelie Alito