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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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  • by phantomfive (622387) on Saturday December 07, 2013 @12:38PM (#45626975) Journal
    That ruins tenure.
    • That ruins tenure.

      Well, no.

      Tenure is based on regularly contributing to research. The publishing frequency is not really the determining factor. Unless you're really, REALLY slow, and never REALLY publish.

      • by segedunum (883035) on Saturday December 07, 2013 @01:19PM (#45627287)

        The publishing frequency is not really the determining factor.

        I very much think you will find it is these days. The research that is being done today is mostly junk, cheap industrial research and that's based on keeping the grants and the patent applications flowing. If you aren't part of the team who buys into that and wants to do something that takes time and effort you're not going to fit in.

        • 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 codegen (103601) on Saturday December 07, 2013 @02:15PM (#45627673) 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.

            I don't think you have that right. In Canada when we submit grant proposals to NSERC we can only include at most 4 papers from the past 5 years as well, but that is the copies for the referees to read. Your CV that you submit lists all of your publications in the last 6 years, and the referees certainly look at those. From discussions with my colleagues in the UK, it is the same over there. You submit a few best papers for the referee to read, but your CV better have listed all of the papers in the review period or you are sunk.

            • It's a bit different:

              I had a bit of a brain-o. It's the REF (Research Excellence Framework) which ranks universities. That determines large amounts of funding for the universities, so they have started hiring researchers based on REF score. That's only done on top 4 papers.

              Individual grants are still done the same old way.

            • by TheRaven64 (641858) on Saturday December 07, 2013 @03:07PM (#45628011) Journal

              The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is the ranking of UK universities. The REF replaces the older Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), which happened every four years. The last RAE was 4 years ago, and the current REF is just finishing. Established academics have to submit 4 research outputs since the last RAE / REF. These are usually papers, but can be other things (systems you've built and so on).

              The REF is a really big deal in UK universities, because it directly impacts the availability of research grants. The CVs of individual researchers are taken into account, but the REF / RAE score of the department is the biggest factor. If you have 4 papers in top-tier publications (conferences or journals, depending on your field), then it's very easy to get hired in the run up to the REF, because a lot of second tier universities are looking to find people who will bump them up the rankings.

              Conversely, if you don't have the 4 publications (or other impressive things), then it's very hard to get a tenured position, but if you're not averaging one good paper a year then there's probably something wrong with you as a researcher: part of the point of publicly funded research is that the results are communicated to the public, and if you're not doing this then you're not keeping up your end of the deal.

              • by MLCT (1148749) on Saturday December 07, 2013 @07:02PM (#45629331)
                Almost everything you say is valid, but:

                if you're not averaging one good paper a year then there's probably something wrong with you as a researcher

                That is *exactly* what Peter Higgs is complaining about. His point is that great ideas don't come about once a year - and that if he was 40 years younger he wouldn't get positions because he wouldn't be fulfilling the quota - and thus great ideas are being lost in this treadmill.

          • by Antique Geekmeister (740220) on Saturday December 07, 2013 @03:03PM (#45627991)

            4 scientific papers in 5 years is a tremendous rate for more physical sciences. It's possible, in my observation, to have have a few basically "filler" papers in progress while the genuinely interesting or illuminating paper is published. But effectively publishing one significant paper a year, accepted to reputable journals, is a tremendous amount of work in most fields such as chemistry, physics, or engineering. Social science papers can publish analyses of analyses of analyses as "new" publichations, and have been doing so for decades. But in sciences where you have to actually collect raw data, it's very frequent publication.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by AlphaWolf_HK (692722)

      Well if it takes a Nobel then it sounds like there's an easy fix for people like him: Just run for office as a democrat.

  • by segedunum (883035) on Saturday December 07, 2013 @12:41PM (#45627001)
    That's the way it is. Keep the research papers churning, regardless of how utter crap they are, and more importantly keep the research grants flowing.

    I remember the BBC did a programme a few years ago asking why people are so sceptical about science these days. This is exactly why.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday December 07, 2013 @12:48PM (#45627055)

      That's the way it is. Keep the research papers churning, regardless of how utter crap they are, and more importantly keep the research grants flowing.

      I remember the BBC did a programme a few years ago asking why people are so sceptical about science these days. This is exactly why.

      I think some research needs to be done and a paper written about that phenomena.

    • by DavidClarkeHR (2769805) <david.clarke@nosPAM.hrgeneralist.ca> on Saturday December 07, 2013 @01:07PM (#45627183)

      That's the way it is. Keep the research papers churning, regardless of how utter crap they are, and more importantly keep the research grants flowing. I remember the BBC did a programme a few years ago asking why people are so sceptical about science these days. This is exactly why.

      No. There is a distinct difference between poor quality science and bad science.

      There's also the public tendency to reduce everything to a simple answer, when it's rarely simple.

      • by segedunum (883035)

        No. There is a distinct difference between poor quality science and bad science.

        That statement ironically confirms everything I'm pointing out and the reality distortion field much of the scientific community lives in.

        There's also the public tendency to reduce everything to a simple answer, when it's rarely simple.

        When you see a heck of a lot of anti-depressant drugs handed out for ailments that aren't even psychological, it becomes obvious to even the public what is going on.

        When the same things start cropping up time and again Occam's Razor becomes even more applicable, and yes, it is that simple regardless of the scientific community's refrain that you don't understand what i

        • by Nemyst (1383049)
          Most people don't even know what Occam's razor even is. As much as you wish it were, the big reason for doubting science usually is that it doesn't align with your preconceived world views. God didn't make the Earth? Bullshit. We're wrecking our own planet through our unlimited greed? Bullshit. Oil is bad for the environment? Bullshit. Men are closely related to apes? Bullshit. It's pretty simple and has little to do with actual reasoning or well thought-out opinions.

          Your only example is proof perfect tha
          • The comment re: antidepressant drugs is amusingly largely a result of both our current form of healthcare (which emphasizes profits not care) and specifically the so-called "war on drugs" which while it has not yet actually criminalized pharmacological knowledge has certainly gone a long way to make sure the average person doesn't get a chance to learn. Pharmacology is complex, yes, but its not impossible, and one of the very first things you learn is all drugs are different (by virtue of being different c

    • by sandytaru (1158959) on Saturday December 07, 2013 @02:32PM (#45627773) Journal
      welllllll if we actually paid university scientists directly for research like R&D departments do instead of making them beg for grants on a yearly basis, we might not have this problem.

      "Here is your lab, here is your staff. We will pay for your lab and your staff for the next five years, plus materials and equipment and a small petty cash budget for operations (computers, pizza parties.) You have five years to produce a quality research paper that is accepted for publication on the first shot. No paper, no promotion. No science happens, you're back to teaching undergrads for the rest of your career. Go!"
  • 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.

    • And in industry they do no research at all any more.

      • And in industry they do no research at all any more.

        Incorrect.

        There is plenty of research done by industry (well, depending on the industry). It is generally not pure research, though. It's focused and should bring some sort of competitive advantage. Also, industry will not publish to the same extent, or in the same manner, because it isn't pure science.

        Maybe this is less true in CS than it is in biology or psychology, but I don't even need to check for sources to know that pharmaceutical companies and chemical companies both do quite a bit of research.

    • by pikine (771084) on Saturday December 07, 2013 @01:03PM (#45627157) Journal

      Let's suppose you're the fund manager and you want to maximize impact of your dollars. But there are too many researchers applying for grant. What do you do? You divest rather than invest, and hope that one of the projects will churn out useful outcome.

      If you want to focus your money for deeper impact, people will definitely accuse you of favoritism. It is hard to prove innocent because research is, intrinsically, a very specialized craft, and only very specialized people understand the qualifications. Sometimes experts don't agree on the qualifications either. Once you are accused and unable to prove yourself innocent, your career as a fund manager would be ruined due to academic misconduct allegations. If you distribute your funds fairly and squarely, people can still accuse you of favoritism, but at least you have plausible deniability.

      From a researcher's point of view, research is really about begging money to do things you want to do. Or if you end up not doing what you want to do, simply begging money. Historically only the nobles have the time and money to do research. This is what I always tell my friends:

      • If you have no money and no time, make time.
      • Now you have time but still no money. Make money with your time.
      • Now you have money but no time. Make money smarter so you save time.
      • Now you have both time and money, do whatever you want.
      • by jafac (1449)

        Let's suppose you're the fund manager and you want to maximize impact of your dollars. But there are too many researchers applying for grant. What do you do? You divest rather than invest, and hope that one of the projects will churn out useful outcome.

        By and large, true. In our current (overall) deflationary environment.

    • by ceoyoyo (59147)

      Me too. I was unwise enough to choose to do longitudinal human research. I'm competing with people whose papers require data from ten mice over a couple of weeks. Or better yet, some Excel jockeying on data somebody else spent time collecting.

      I got frustrated once and explained to the project PI (a physician) on a group teleconference once what had been done, and what had yet to be done, for a paper. There was silence, then "uh, that sounds like, uh, a lot of work."

  • by timholman (71886) on Saturday December 07, 2013 @12:51PM (#45627073)

    Go to most science and engineering departments in the U.S. today, and you'll find senior faculty members sitting on P&T (promotion and tenure) committees who would never qualify for tenure if they were judged by the same standards they apply to junior faculty. You'll meet assistant professors who've published more journal papers in two years (and brought in more research money) than a full professor has done in his entire career, while being told it isn't good enough by the P&T committee.

    That double standard is not lost on the younger faculty, nor does not make them happy. To add insult to injury, the younger faculty generally tend to be better teachers, as well. It is a topsy-turvy world where the people in charge are often the least qualified of anyone there.

    • 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.
      • by IndustrialComplex (975015) on Saturday December 07, 2013 @01:18PM (#45627271)

        Good luck with your accreditations. I'd be willing to bet that there are a few 'pedigree' requirements with regard to your faculty. That said, if you make enough news with your 'alternative' you might be able to get people to not care.

        Unfortunately for someone like me, any contract I work for the government usually has strict degree/education standards.

      • by ceoyoyo (59147)

        I've thought of the same thing. Put in the charter that all administrators must be academics in good standing, where good standing means they're doing productive research, as assessed by randomly assigned peer-reviewers.

        • by TMB (70166)

          I disagree - being an academic takes all your time, and being an administrator also takes all your time. I'd like my administrators to have enough time to be good administrators!

          Now, I think that all administrators ought to have once been academics, otherwise they don't actually understand the problems that they need to deal with, but not that they still are active researchers.

      • I feel like DIY research in some fields could be well poised to make some positive changes with what you're talking about. Specifically in biology, it seems like the trend is to fund big science done by huge consortiums or to fund "translational" research*. Those tend to be less risky research and are often less groundbreaking. Universities want researchers to participate in such big or boring research, and to spend the rest of their time filling classrooms. If funding agencies gave more small grants to
      • Brown University used to not issue grades to students. I sometimes wonder if starting to issue grades was a mistake. Yes, it's motivational, but it can also distract from serious thought and reflection.

    • Go to most science and engineering departments in the U.S. today, and you'll find senior faculty members sitting on P&T (promotion and tenure) committees who would never qualify for tenure if they were judged by the same standards they apply to junior faculty.

      And how is that different from anywhere else? The old judge the young, on a standard that didn't exist before, and doesn't apply to them.

      Case in point - How many senior managers are more qualified (educationally) than the people they are hiring?

      • by Anubis IV (1279820) on Saturday December 07, 2013 @01:38PM (#45627391)

        Quite correct, but you're missing the obvious. In the case of your senior manager, their decision to hire a more qualified person means that there should be an improvement from one generation to the next. As long as that trend continues, we can reasonably expect things to keep improving as time goes on. In the case of a full professor hiring someone who can churn out more papers of a lower quality, we're actually pretty much assured that we'll see a step backwards from one generation to the next. As long as that trend continues, we can reasonably expect that the quality of research will decline as time goes on.

        Old judging the young is not the problem, nor is the problem that a different standard is being applied. The problem is that a worse standard is being applied.

  • by hcs_$reboot (1536101) on Saturday December 07, 2013 @12:53PM (#45627093)

    "Peter Higgs, the physicist who laid the groundwork for the discovery of the Higgs boson and winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics"

    Actually he shared the price with François Englert [theguardian.com] who (at least) equally worked on the boson.

  • This (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Tyler Durden (136036) on Saturday December 07, 2013 @12:54PM (#45627103)

    Making sure someone is constantly busy in any intellectual field is a sure-fire way to kill any hope of creativity. The best ideas often come from moments when you can just clear your head completely or just play around with ideas on your own without worrying about your productivity. Modern society seems to have forgotten this.

    • http://www.disciplined-minds.com/ [disciplined-minds.com]
      "In this riveting book about the world of professional work, Jeff Schmidt demonstrates that the workplace is a battleground for the very identity of the individual, as is graduate school, where professionals are trained. He shows that professional work is inherently political, and that professionals are hired to subordinate their own vision and maintain strict "ideological discipline."
      The hidden root of much career dissatisfaction, argues Schmidt, is the profe

      • by Yergle143 (848772)

        This thread has to do with Physics. I have a graph I keep around showing how federal funds have been allocated to research by discipline over time. We've been in an age of biology since the late 1970's. But, the same pressures and day of reckoning are at hand. The trouble with physics is, of course, it did its job too well. All the "practical" problems were "solved" ages ago and got spun off to engineering. So too is it with biology research. Eventually the public, and political funders, will wake up and re

    • 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 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. :)

    • From primary school all the way through college, my mutant ability was to do superhumanly well on tests. I tended to place somewhere in the top tenth-percentile (99.9%). My grades were good, but not that good -- I didn't do very well at straight memorization, and I didn't have much drive to do well on larger projects. I met a few others who tended to score exceptionally well on tests, and I saw that this pattern was pretty common.

      The current system is broken, for reasons described in the summary and in some

    • Why must senior researchers have "tenure"? Why is it important that they can't be sacked if the university no longer wants to keep them on?

      • 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.

  • as keep churning out papers environment is not a place to be learning hands on skills from people who have done the work in that in environment it may be a TA reading out of the book.

  • Honest Research (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday December 07, 2013 @01:19PM (#45627279)

    I am a tenured full professor at a mid-to-leading rank European
    university. I work each day for several hours on ideas I consider interesting, publishing
    if the results seem useful. I also take seriously my teaching duties (mostly low level courses that no one else wants).
    However I refuse to play office politics or participate in advancing the careers of others (like writing articles for them). And while this excludes any possibility of promotion it is a fair trade-off for having the peace and tranquility required to research difficult ideas.
    So problems that Higgs mentions exist also at lower levels. Either you play their game or else you get shunted out.

  • by kencurry (471519) on Saturday December 07, 2013 @01:48PM (#45627485)
    Having the freedom to fail, then to be able to analyze and think about why you failed is one of the most important methods of learning. When you succeed , you really don't spend the time to analyze why, but you sure do when you fail.

    In today's world, the importance of failure is not understood.
  • where money is the main criteria for any action, many things can and do go wrong. In particular when continuing exponential growth processes run by humans happen in a closed system with limited non-renewable resources.
  • 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 hduff (570443) <hoytduff.gmail@com> on Saturday December 07, 2013 @02:22PM (#45627711) Homepage Journal

    You get what you measure for.

  • Isn't this what impact factor metrics like the H-index [wikipedia.org] (and improved versions) are designed to address? Those take into account the "quality" of a given paper, as measured by its citation count, as well as the number of papers (productivity). Of course, the citation count may not be an accurate measure of quality, I guess. It's probably simplistic, but certainly better than just counting papers published.
    • by maxwell demon (590494) on Saturday December 07, 2013 @03:05PM (#45628003) Journal

      Of course, if e.g. all you have ever published are four papers, your H index cannot go above four, even if those four papers are the best papers ever and each of them gets more citations than all the other papers in the world combined.

      Also, the H index by its very nature gives advantage to people doing lots of collaborations, because that increases the chance that your collaborators (or people associated with them) will cite your articles (in part because some of them are also their articles, and in part because they are simply more likely to recognize your papers because they know you). Of course doing lots of collaborations doesn't imply you're a better scientist. It just means you're better at networking.

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