Pretty busy this week with some applications, so I’ll leave you with a few links:
- Why we still pay for academic journals even though everything is now online. It’s mostly legacy (h/t Stephanie).
- Andy Revkin on scientism and climate communication. Revkin recaps the a couple sessions at the recent AAAS meeting, including the one that I organized. Thomas Lessl’s comments are particularly insightful.
- Yet more climate change communication, this time in Scientific American. In yet another display of shameless self-promotion, I’ll point out that this post also discusses the panel.
That’s it for now!
It’s been just over a year since I started blogging, and as my readers know I traverse an eclectic mix of topics. I’ve blogged about climate change, religion, science and race, history and philosophy of science, regulatory science, basic research and science literacy. For the past few months I’ve been trying to determine whether I need a common theme. And if I do, I’ve been trying to determine what exactly this theme would be.
I think I have finally figured it out. If I may be somewhat immodest, I’ve read pretty extensively in science studies, which encompasses the above topics and then some. All of this personal research has me convinced that there is much about science that scientists should know. During school, I worked towards that goal by teaching this class. I guess I now view my blog as an extension of those efforts. I would eventually like to serve as a discussion ground for scientists (which especially includes grad students) and experts in science studies. Currently there are too few scientists here and it’s something I’d like to change.
The upshot of all this is that we can expect a bit more structure on this blog. Not too much, because science studies is of course a vast arena. It might just be that I categorize my posts a bit differently and add an “About This Blog” tab at the top. I’ve already modified my one line description to read “Connecting scientists with science studies.”
To start down this road, I’ll repeat what I asked a few months ago: What the most important lessons from science studies, history and philosophy of science, etc. that scientists should know? Or rather, what do the experts in those fields wish practicing scientists were aware of?
I’m glad to see Ryan Myer blogging again after a long break. His recent post does a typically good job dissecting the Obama administration’s ratcheting up the value of a human life used in cost-benefit analysis and regulatory decisions. As Ryan notes, despite their quantitative facade, such calculations ultimately hinge on subjective, moral judgments. But as often happens in these situations, the Obama administration insists their actions “utilize the best available science in assessing the benefits and costs of any potential regulation.” Ryan asks for greater honesty:
It would be great to see the Administration taking an open, straightforward approach to this. They could just come out and make a very reasonable argument that, based on their values, they feel that human life should be more important than it was under Bush. Instead, they’ve disowned the decision entirely, hiding behind a scientific-seeming method.
I sympathize with this request, and I’ve repeatedly called for simpler, more honest arguments. But methinks Ryan is a bit harsh here. Obama has not “disowned the decision entirely.” Everyone is aware that these decisions flow from Obama himself. I’m also pretty sure that everyone already knows that with respect to environmental regulation, Obama values life more than Bush did. Moreover, greater regulatory oversight is a longstanding liberal policy goal and it’s no surprise that Obama has been following through on it. The values are already widely known and so I’m not sure how much benefit there would be to Obama’s publicly vocalizing them.
As much as I would like to see more nuanced public discourse about science in decision-making, it’s a bit much to expect that from elected officials. Obama is simply doing what it’s his job to do–push his agenda with the best tools available. For better and for worse, science is often viewed as one of the best tools. And so it’s not surprising to see Obama deploy it here. Especially since hiding behind science doesn’t seem to be hurting him (and may in fact be helping), I don’t see how he can do otherwise. Sure there’s a bit of grandstanding and p0litical theater there. But are we really surprised? We are are in fact talking about the President. Grandstanding and political theater comes with the territory. Careful arguments based on logical premises is ultimately the realm of philosophers, not politicians.
Unless its power is diminished, we really have no choice but to accept that science will be used as a cover for politics and values.
I’m busy this week preparing for the AAAS Annual Meeting and specifically this panel. I convened this panel to try spark a debate on how we should think about science communication and expertise when we have over 7 million scientists in a $1 trillion enterprise. I’ve briefly touched on this theme before.
On an unrelated note, check out this MSNBC report on creationism in schools. Here’s the associated Science paper. Apparently 13% of biology teachers back creationism. I’ll have more to say later, but wanted to link to it now (h/t Omair).
I’ll try to do some live-blogging from the meeting.
UPDATE: I meant to say earlier that several of my interlocutors on this space helped me develop the panel. Moreover, discussions I’ve had in the comments have also helped clarify my thinking. Much thanks!
My last post discussed Lehrer’s column on the increased difficulty of making scientific discoveries. Lehrer should have stuck with that topic alone instead of pivotting off Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation to ponder the relationship between scientific discoveries and standard of living:
I think it’s also worth contemplating the disturbing possibility that our cresting living standards might ultimately be rooted in the difficulty of making new scientific discoveries. After all, at a certain point the pursuit of reality is subject to diminishing returns – our asteroids will get so small that we’ll stop searching for them.
For someone who often paints wonderfully nuanced pictures of science, I’m a bit confused to see Lehrer write this. Living standards never have been and never will be “rooted” in new science. If they are rooted in anything, it is productivity increases related to innovation. The rule of law, tax structure, monetary policies, and capital investment all play a pretty big role here.
In fact, only since WWII has science been more than a minor player. Industrial revolution technologies were not strongly linked to the scientific revolution that preceded it, and may have depended more on a robust patent system than heroic scientists. Even if we grant that science has recently become critical, it may be more so in America than elsewhere. The Japanese economic miracle occurred despite a paltry level of science funding, and was spurred by careful industrial planning. Germany seems to have escaped the worst of the Great Recession despite spending relatively little on R&D. And while our standard of living may be “cresting”, the developing world is, well, developing quite well. So again, there is no straightforward link between science, innovation, and living standards.
The U.S. may indeed have a problem with economic stagnation, and it’s important to understand what exactly is going on. But casually assigning too much credit or blame to discovery is, for lack of a better term, pretty unscientific and doesn’t help.
Jonah Lehrer has again written a provacative piece, arguing that growing collaboration and teamwork among scientists is a response to ”all the low-hanging facts [having] been found.” Today’s science is simply much too hard and complex to tackle alone. Lehrer quotes Samuel Arbesman:
If you look back on history, you get the sense that scientific discovery used to be easy. Galileo rolled objects down slopes. Robert Hooke played with a spring to learn about elasticity; Isaac Newton poked around his own eye with a darning needle to understand color perception. It took creativity and knowledge to ask the right questions, but the experiments themselves could be almost trivial.
Today, if you want to make a discovery in physics, it helps to be part of a 10,000 member team that runs a multibillion dollar atom smasher. It takes ever more money, more effort, and more people to find out new things.
Given that I wrote something similar just a month ago, I of course liked this passage. A few responders at Andrew Sullivan do critique the notions that science was ever easy or that we’ve reached the ”end of disovery.” On the latter point, I agree that the meme is a bit overwrought. Over 1 million papers get published every year, and presumably most of them make a discovery of some form. Some might later be proven wrong, and some may be meaningless (Lehrer claims one-third of papers never get cited), but they are discoveries nonetheless.
Perhaps a better phrase is the slowdown of meaningful discovery. The fact that all the low-hanging fruit have been found doesn’t end the pursuit of knowledge. It just means we have to focus on smaller, more specialized problems that have less payoff (hence all those uncited papers), or focus on really, really hard problems that can’t be solved (hence all those corrections in medical research). The productivity slowdown in pharmaceutical R&D is one notable example of the former phenomenon. The graph is particularly striking (h/t Roger Pielke Jr.).
The rate of discovery ultimately matters because we think it affects our standard of living, a point Lehrer addresses towards the end of his post. Unfortunately, he really muddles the relationship between discovery and innovation. I’ll try to address this in my next post.
To finally talk about something other than basic and applied research (although I’ll shortly return to the topic!), I strongly recommend this interview with historian and philosopher of science Evelyn Fox Keller. It’s a part of the “How to Think About Science” series that I brought to your attention before. I’ve been slowly making my way through the series, and this episode has been by far my favorite.
Starting about the 19-minute mark, she makes some insightful comments on how STS scholarship, and feminist studies in particular, has changed science. Keller believes that research like hers has had virtually no impact. In approximately her words:
Science changes for sure. It changes all the time. But it doesn’t change in response to the kind of critique I was offering. It changes in response to economic pressures; to opportunities. Science is first and foremost a domain of opportunism.
The rest of the episode is equally fascinating. Listen to the whole thing.
If you’re wondering why I keep harping on basic research, it’s because I want to write an essay on the topic and I’m using this venue to hash out my ideas. So here we go again! Here’s David Bruggeman commenting on my exhortation for policy analysts to just say that scientists should care more about need-driven research:
Yes, the government supports research that addresses specific national needs. But who gets tenure for conducting research that addresses specific national needs? There’s not necessarily a correlation between cutting-edge and targeted to national needs.
There are a few issues mixed in here. First, it’s very easy to falsely homogenize all academic research. It’s undoubtedly true that the string theorists and particle physicists aren’t addressing a specific national need (outside of maintaining the U.S. lead in basic science). Theoretical physics, however, does not represent all of academia. Engineering schools routinely focus on practical problems. Even in physics many study “useful” topics like fuel cells and alternative energy. On top of that, programs like Stanford’s Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resource are becoming increasingly common.
It’s also true that no one gets tenure for addressing a national need. But I’ll go against the zeitgeist here and say that’s a good thing! Researchers should be evaluated on their research quality, teaching, outreach, administrative tasks, etc. And while I would love to see a much bigger focus on teaching and outreach, it’s a stretch to think that your typical tenure committee is qualified to evaluate how well a given research portfolio addresses national needs. As David knows as well as anyone, science is only one component.
To the extent we believe research helps solve problems, academics can best serve their role by doing good research. Sometimes doing doing good research entails direct engagement with a real-world problem. The global cook-oves initiative comes to mind here. But this type of situation is rare. Even on what appears to be a pressing issue like coral reef management, research is often fairly removed from immediate use. I’d like to think that Stanford’s Environmental Fluid Mechanics Lab will lead to better decisions, but the latest supercomputer simulations don’t offer much. And thus it doesn’t make much sense to include extra-scientific criteria in the evaluation.
The underlying problem here is that David is trying to make academia, and research more generally, something that it inherently is not. Academia, simply put, is not supposed to be directly useful. Academia does in fact contain many academics. Almost by definition, academics aren’t motivated by pressing, relevant problems. If they were, they wouldn’t be academics! By your 3rd year in grad school, you pretty much figure out that if you want to do work that connects to the real world, you leave academia. Now I may be biased because I was in a physics department, but I don’t think these sentiments are way off the mark. I suspect this dynamic is why the government does research in national labs as well as universities. It’s also why we have university-industry partnerships, and directly fund private companies to do work.
There’s nothing wrong with being an academic of course. The pursuit of knowledge is a worthy activity, and a big part of me would be happy doing that for the rest of my life.* But you’re only going to get so far asking academics to do something they’re not always well-suited to do.
To continue with the basic research meme, here’s Lewis Branscomb distinguishing the goals of research with how it’s conducted (emphasis added):
I believe it would be much easier to understand what is required if the agencies would define basic research not by the character of the benefits the public expects to gain (large but unpredictable and long-delayed benefits in the case of Newtonian research) but rather by the highly creative environment in which the best basic research is carried out…If we pursue this line of reasoning, we are immediately led to the realization that the goals to which Jeffersonian research is dedicated require progress in both scientific understanding and in new technological discoveries. Thus not only basic science but a broad range of basic technology research of great value to society is required. The key idea here is to separate in our policy thinking the motives for spending public money on research from the choice of environments in which to perform the work.
I have to wonder how much of that thinking is confused, not in the minds of politicians or policymakers, but in scientists and the public. The Air Force program managers who funded my graduate research knew that basic science conducted in the relative freedom of academia could also serve national needs. Along those lines, since the 1970′s DARPA has explicitly tried to fund high-risk high-reward research. Much of the work has occurred in universities, and has spanned natural science, engineering and even (occasionally!) social science departments. So again, it appears that the decision-makers have known for a very long time that there is no real conflict between basic and applied research. Whatever scientists might believe and say in public, policymakers and politicians are smart enough to not listen to them. The NSF, the only agency that’s really dedicated to science for science’s sake, receives a paltry 4% of federal R&D spending. So scientists push a narrative that the people in power clearly, and thankfully, don’t believe.
Which leads to me to say again, as I did in my last post, that efforts such as Branscomb’s are not really about changing funding patterns. They’re more about changing scientists’ priorities and the culture of academia. Those are worthwhile goals, and ones I support in some measure. I suspect these ideas would get a lot more traction if Branscomb simply said he wanted to make academia more welcoming to need-driven research. In my experience, young graduate students are yearning for that opportunity. Invoking rhetoric about Jeffersonian science just muddles the message.