Become a fan of Slashdot on Facebook

 



Forgot your password?
typodupeerror
Education The Almighty Buck Science

Let Researchers Try New Paths (nature.com) 116

Writing for Nature journal, scientists and professors Tolu Oni, Fabio Sciarrino, Gerardo Adesso, and Rob Knight, discuss an issue researchers have been facing a lot lately. The scientific enterprise is stuck in a catch-22, they say. Researchers are charged with advancing promising new questions, but receive support and credit only for revisiting their past work. They say that often times while examining one thing researchers are able to uncover several other important things, but deviating from the path is something frowned upon for various reasons among the industry. From the article (condensed): Most striking are the barriers to achieving impact. Our research often led us to questions that had greater potential than our original focus, typically because these new directions encompassed the complexities of society. We realized that changing tack could lead to more important work, but the policies of research funders and institutions consistently discourage such pivots. When reviewers assess grants or academic performance, they focus largely on track records in a particular field. Young scientists, who must focus on developing their careers, are thus discouraged from exploration. Our own experiences provide a glimpse of the well-intentioned forces that can keep researchers from trying other paths. This challenge is not new. Physicist-turned-structural biologist Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, who is president of the Royal Society, worked for several years in a job with funding that was contingent on a steady stream of publications. This forced him to ask safe but incremental questions. To pursue what became his Nobel-prizewinning work (on the structure of the ribosome), he moved to another institution where he could ask the questions that interested him, irrespective of the chances for publication. As he describes in his Nobel biography, the decision required an international move and a large pay cut.
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Let Researchers Try New Paths

Comments Filter:
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Look, I get it, everyone wants to come up with the next huge breakthrough. As you become an expert in a field, however, you find that the most value often does come from pushing the boundary forward a little bit. Everyone doing this together keeps a steady march forward. As you establish yourself as a competent researcher who knows your field, it becomes easier to push the envelope. If you do have a eureka moment, that's awesome, but you'll have to work extra hard to support it, and that involves greater ri

    • by gweihir ( 88907 )

      I completely disagree. From my experience, "incremental research" universally means irrelevant research, as there is only so much you can do incrementally into a direction that actually promises results. Hence people go into directions where they can "increment" and publish long-term, but where nothing useful ever comes out. In fact, solving an issue can cost a scientist his job as there is then no more chance to do irrelevant increments!

      • Supposedly, the best way to get a Nobel in Economics is to pick a topic that "isn't economics" or is obvious or is obviously false, or otherwise is a dumb idea.

        The only example that comes to mind at the moment is behavioral economics, but this tendency has popped up more than once in the podcasts at http://econtalk.org/ [econtalk.org] .

        If you want to go looking for other examples there, its probably best to skip the podcasts about the economics of pirates, and the manufacturing of potato chips, and of car parts. (Proba

  • by igny ( 716218 ) on Friday October 28, 2016 @05:41PM (#53171527) Homepage Journal
    Some time ago tenure system was devised to protect researchers who explore new paths. They could not be fired just because they seemingly accomplish nothing for years for a chance that they may suddenly revolutionize their field or something.

    Nowadays universities in USA have turned into money making businesses which are all focused on whether a professor can bring grants or profitable patents disregarding long term benefits for exploring new paths.
    • Specific to biology, a lot of the research funding has been diverted from basic research to "what can we do with it right now(ish)" research, called "translational" research.

      It's not an inherently bad idea, people are sick and dying now, having everyone work on pie-in-the-sky stuff that might pan out 30 years from now isn't great either, but I'm not sure the balance is working out. I don't know how one measures that either except for 30 years in the future. And I think that if something really is ready t
    • Some time ago tenure system was devised to protect researchers who explore new paths.

      In modern times, that is not enough. Much modern research requires millions in equipment and staffing. Tenure just keeps you from being fired. It doesn't give you funding.

      • Because I figured that I could actually get time to get some work done, because I wouldn't need millions in equipment, just a few computers.

        Then I realized that you're expected to be a "small business owner" funding a posse of grad students, and I imagine if you didn't keep grinding the grant mill for that, you'd be forced out through all kinds of nasty subtle tricks that academic departments have to force people out these days, whether it's denying tenure track or doing a negative performance review proces

  • by Gravis Zero ( 934156 ) on Friday October 28, 2016 @05:55PM (#53171639)

    What we're seeing is the result of capitalism's reach getting to scientists. The focus of institutions has moved from discoveries of research to the monetary benefits of research. The reason for this is plain as day, a lack of funds. The question is, who is restricting funds and what is their motive. If you find this, you'll discover the problem.

    Capitalism has it's place but using it everywhere will lead to disaster.

    • by gweihir ( 88907 )

      Indeed, it does. Even getting applied research funding requires you to lie convincingly these days, as the ones evaluating the applications seem to think they are buying a finished product. I have just been through this utterly stupid thing again. No surprise science is utterly broken today. Smart people move out of it as soon as they can. The rest cannot really do well.

      • Indeed, it does. Even getting applied research funding requires you to lie convincingly these days, as the ones evaluating the applications seem to think they are buying a finished product.

        Academic research proposals are peer reviewed, so you are not complaining about capitalists or investors, you are complaining about people like yourself. Even the nominally non-peers (like DARPA program managers) usually started out as academics.

        Smart people move out of it as soon as they can. The rest cannot really do we

        • by gweihir ( 88907 )

          Fail, and fail. Impressive. This is about a government grant in applied research and it is _not_ peer reviewed. It gets reviewed by bureaucrats and that is one thing I will never be.

          • This is about a government grant in applied research

            Then it isn't relevant; TFA is about basic research.

            and it is _not_ peer reviewed. It gets reviewed by bureaucrats

            Being an academic and a bureaucrat are not mutually exclusive. In fact, almost all government research grants are reviewed by experts.

            and that is one thing I will never be.

            Perhaps not. If you keep failing to get grant funding, even the academic bureaucrat career is likely closed to you. Have you consider driving for Uber?

            • by gweihir ( 88907 )

              Hahahaha, funny. You are badly off on all counts. Simply incompetent, or malicious liar? Not that I care much.

    • What we're seeing is the result of capitalism's reach getting to scientists. The focus of institutions has moved from discoveries of research to the monetary benefits of research. The reason for this is plain as day, a lack of funds. The question is, who is restricting funds and what is their motive. If you find this, you'll discover the problem.

      Capitalism has it's place but using it everywhere will lead to disaster.

      Because today, science and advances take an extremely remote second place to servicing the stockholders. Once upon a time, there were places like Bell labs where a lot of research was done. Then there was a shift to Universities. This helped fo ra while, but now the Universities are groaning under the weight, are in some cases employing more managers than any other field, except for possibly accountants and fundraisers. http://www.bain.com/publicatio... [bain.com] warning - thi sis plenty dry stuff here.

      The fix? I

      • Because today, science and advances take an extremely remote second place to servicing the stockholders.

        What stockholders? Most people working in basic science work at universities and research labs; they don't have any "stockholders".

        Once upon a time, there were places like Bell labs where a lot of research was done.

        Bell Labs was funded by a monopoly on telecommunications, something that kept prices for telephone calls astronomically high, stifled innovation, and delayed the start of the Internet revolutio

        • Because today, science and advances take an extremely remote second place to servicing the stockholders.

          What stockholders? I have no idea what libertarian fappoff you are doing, but your replies to me don't have anything to do with what I wrote.

          You make a ridiculous mistake in trying to say that I wrote that scientists are somehow stockholders. But I think you are smarter than that, and are just one of those peopel that like to latch onto a couple words then act like the other person is an idiot. I have a guy like that who worked for me for a while. A rather short while. Now if you want to discuss like a grownup, we can. But you got off on a wildass tangentt, and it only got worse from there. Point is, basic research doesn't have an immediate profit, so is not a real good candidate for free market principles. Good day sir.

          • What stockholders? I have no idea what libertarian fappoff you are doing, but your replies to me don't have anything to do with what I wrote. You make a ridiculous mistake in trying to say that I wrote that scientists are somehow stockholders

            I literally quoted you. Would you like me to quote you again?

            [Ol Olsoc] Because today, science and advances take an extremely remote second place to servicing the stockholders.

            That is copied and pasted you.

            I pointed out that there are no stockholders involved in gover

            • Would you like me to quote you again?

              [Ol Olsoc] Because today, science and advances take an extremely remote second place to servicing the stockholders.

              My goodness, the derp is strong in you. Capitalism is all about making money, both for the corporation, and for the stockholders. Do you deny that?

              Science is a job for scientists. Scientists are generally not stockholders, in their field because they tend to work for Universities, Universities that do research tend to not be corporations. Therefore, capitalism, which is all about money, is not good grounds for science. Not now. Whereas the US at one time had a fair amount of money that for profit compani

              • [Ol Olsoc] Because today, science and advances take an extremely remote second place to servicing the stockholders.

                My goodness, the derp is strong in you. Capitalism is all about making money, both for the corporation, and for the stockholders. Do you deny that?

                You are missing the point. The article complains about bad rules imposed on scientific research that is government funded. Those bad decisions have nothing to do with either capitalism or stockholders; they are the bad decisions of politicians and bu

    • What we're seeing is the result of capitalism's reach getting to scientists.

      There is no capitalism in academic research. Capitalism means that the people who spend money on research benefit from its success and pay for its failures. But the funding sources for academic research don't take any risks with their own money, they take tax dollars and hand them out to academic researchers based on scientific fashion and political objectives.

      The focus of institutions has moved from discoveries of research to the m

      • There is no capitalism in academic research.
        [...]
        Correct. Academic funding decisions are largely made by other academics themselves, by the US government, and by politicians. And that's where the problem is.

        it's hilarious that you think politicians aren't tied to capitalism. who do you think pays for their campaigns? what do they do to get that money? it's capitalism all the way down and if you disagree then you are obviously ignorant of the truth, lying or stupid.

        • it's hilarious that you think politicians aren't tied to capitalism. who do you think pays for their campaigns? what do they do to get that money?

          People with money also shit and fuck; that doesn't make shitting and fucking capitalist activities.

          Capitalism is defined as an economic and political system in which a country's trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state. Paying money to politicians in order to get them to interfere in the economy is the opposite of ca

          • Capitalism is defined as an economic and political system in which a country's trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state.
            Paying money to politicians in order to get them to interfere in the economy is the opposite of capitalism.

            This is true if favorable laws aren't viewed as a good and individual politicians as the private owners of the legislative gateway. However, I live in the real world and in the real world, favorable influence are bought and sold, be it indirect.

            We could solve this in a number of ways like making political donations anonymous to the recipient. However, a better way would to make donations into a shared pool for all candidates. Unsurprisingly, when they tried these measures, corporate donations ended.

            it's capitalism all the way down and if you disagree then you are obviously ignorant of the truth, lying or stupid.

            I for

            • Capitalism is defined as an economic and political system in which a country's trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state. Paying money to politicians in order to get them to interfere in the economy is the opposite of capitalism.

              This is true if favorable laws aren't viewed as a good and individual politicians as the private owners of the legislative gateway.

              No, it isn't true "if" you view something some way; that's how capitalism is defined.

              We could solve this

              • This is true if favorable laws aren't viewed as a good and individual politicians as the private owners of the legislative gateway.

                No, it isn't true "if" you view something some way; that's how capitalism is defined.

                Which part of the definition says favorable bills to be voted into law (aka favorable laws) can't be a good? Bills aren't part of the state until they are passed into law and politicians are individuals first and part of the state second. Anyway, like I said before, I live in the real world where economic theory meets reality.

                You can also simply go to mandatory public financing of campaigns,

                Indeed, this would be an excellent option.

                now, instead of private money influencing elections, you have a self-perpetuating political class.

                True but there there will actually be a variety of political parties that are able to compete instead of the current monoparty system with c

  • The root problem (I speculate) is the same one that afflicts companies looking ahead only to the next quarter, schools teaching only prescribed and minimally challenging material, the slow strangulation of endless safety regulation, etc. We're short-sighted, and can't fathom even a slight risk of negativity. As long as the next increment turns out OK, we figure we'll be just fine. That works, so long as the path you're taking doesn't lead you off a cliff or to stagnation, but if you have to get over some ba

    • On the other hand, the real breakthroughs have never been supported by conventional thinkers or their backers. Kuhn, etc. Would taxpayers accept 99% of research funding to add up to nothing for the remaining 1% to pay off 1000-fold or more? I doubt it. The angels and VCs might risk those odds, but not the standard research funding apparatus.

      This is why we have a representative democracy and a civil service, rather than something more direct. That said, even in the current situation, the funding is far, far

    • The root problem (I speculate) is the same one that afflicts companies looking ahead only to the next quarter

      And which companies would that be? Google, Microsoft, Apple, IBM, Oracle, VW, Mercedes, BMW, Exxon--pretty much any big company--invest for the long term.

      Would taxpayers accept 99% of research funding to add up to nothing for the remaining 1% to pay off 1000-fold or more? I doubt it. The angels and VCs might risk those odds, but not the standard research funding apparatus.

      Oh, that's cute, you think t

  • Back when you could look up at the night sky with a home-built telescope and make ground-breaking discoveries, you could argue that science was more pure in that the scientist was accountable only to himself. Now it costs billions of dollars to make scientific instruments that are capable of detecting phenomena past the boundaries of the possible. Mathematics has never been a turn-the-crank discipline. Biology is also harder than it was in the day of the gentleman-scientist because it's very capital intensi
    • I love the irony of someone complaining on the internet of all things about funding of science and how the scientists are all egotistical eggheads. You do realise that the internet was originally a research project and you're using the fruits of the research to complain about it, right?

  • I totally agree that researchers should go down new and interesting paths, most of which will lead nowhere. The problem is the opportunity cost of letting them do so. Every $1 you spend down a dead end is $1 you haven't spent on something that will actually make a difference, like filling potholes in roads.

    However I would say that a lot of funding is currently miss-allocated towards politically expedient research rather than something actually useful. About 90% of climate research funding, for example
    • I totally agree that researchers should go down new and interesting paths, most of which will lead nowhere. The problem is the opportunity cost of letting them do so.

      But you're ignoring the opportunity cost of not doing so. The difference here is spending the money in more incremental research filling the gaps of a field that may well get obsoleted in 10 years by the next breakthrough versus trying to find that breakthrough.

      A lot of breakthroughs are of course more incremental than most people would like to

      • I'm not ignoring it. I'm simply suggesting that it's not possible to know the opportunity cost of something that is unknown. What, you think researchers should just be given tax-payers money for whatever they like, whenever they like? What controls do you propose to divvy up the budget and how are you going to decide who gets money and who doesn't? The supply isn't infinite, though I suspect the supply of idiotic unreplicatable research papers probably is.
  • [Researcher] Give me your money, it's for sciency stuff, you wouldn't understand. [Politician] Oh, okay, I like you, here you go.
    • Well yeah. How many MPs are there with a scientific background in the house of commons?

      The problem here is not with the scientists.

  • by Ol Olsoc ( 1175323 ) on Friday October 28, 2016 @10:16PM (#53173131)
    For those who think that science is racist and sexist and needs completely broken down and a new and subjective version of science installed. Well, actually no science at all. Yes Virginia, not all kooks are conservative. The left has it's share.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?... [youtube.com]

    • Why do you always drag social justice issues up in irrelevant threads? It's almost like you're fighting for it. A warrior or something.

      • Why do you always drag social justice issues up in irrelevant threads? It's almost like you're fighting for it. A warrior or something.

        Amazing, isn't it?

        You have anything relevant to add to what I posted?

        One of the very important parts of science is to ask questions and discuss, not question motives.

        Here's how it goes:

        Someone complains about how science is done, and that it isn't allowing researchers to explore things they want to explore.

        Okay, but there are some troubling aspects here. From the article:

        We, the authors of this Comment, met earlier this year, having been selected by the World Economic Forum as part of a group

  • They say that often times while examining one thing researchers are able to uncover several other important things, but deviating from the path is something frowned upon for various reasons among the industry

    Academic researchers are primarily funded and promoted by (1) government and (2) other researchers. "Industry" has little to do with it.

    Industrial researchers tend to work on whatever is actually important to their company and tend to be flexible in terms of research directions.

  • This article describes precisely my reason for not pursuing a tenure-track position. Choosing tenure-track – aside from the known committee obligations, teaching, and so on – almost always results in most of your ideas being still-born.

    That is, you get a startup package, and eventually manage to build up a several million $$$ capability for a single, specialized purpose. Soon enough, you have tenure. Soon enough, you solve the Grand Challenge in your subject area. You can write funding pro

IN MY OPINION anyone interested in improving himself should not rule out becoming pure energy. -- Jack Handley, The New Mexican, 1988.

Working...