Friday, October 15, 2010

In praise of cheap science

The era of ‘big science’ in the United States began in the 1930s. Nobody exemplified this spirit more than Ernest Lawrence at the University of California, Berkeley whose cyclotrons smashed subatomic particles together to reveal nature’s deepest secrets. Lawrence was one of the first true scientist-entrepreneurs. He paid his way through college selling all kinds of things as a door-to-door salesman. He brought the same persuasive power a decade later to sell his ideas about particle accelerators to wealthy businessmen and philanthropists. Sparks flying off his big machines, his ‘boys’ frantically running around to fix miscellaneous leaks and shorts, Lawrence would proudly display his Nobel Prize winning invention to millionaires as if it were his own child. The philanthropists’ funding paid off in at least one practical respect; it was Lawrence’s modified cyclotrons that produced the uranium used in the Hiroshima bomb.

After the war big science was propelled to even greater heights. With ever bigger particle accelerators needed to explore ever smaller particles, science became an expensive ‘hobby’. The decades through the 70s were dominated by high-energy physics that needed billion-dollar accelerators to verify its predictions. Fermilab, Brookhaven and of course, CERN, all became household names. Researchers competed for the golden apples that would sustain these behemoths. But one of the rather unfortunate fallouts of these developments was that good science started to be defined by the amount of money it needed. Gone were the days when a Davy or a Cavendish could make profound discoveries using tabletop apparatus. The era of molecular biology and the billion dollar Human Genome Project further cemented this faith in the fruits of expensive research.

We are now seeing the culmination of this era of big physics and biology. In recent years, university professors’ worth has exceedingly been measured by the amount of funding that they get. Science, long a relentless search to uncover the mysteries of life and the universe, has been transformed into a relentless search to find the perfect problem most likely to bag the biggest grant. Rather than focusing on the ideas themselves, the current system encourages researchers on proving their ‘worth’. The only true worth of a scientist is his quest and hunger for knowledge and his passion in transferring that knowledge to the next generation. All other metrics of worth are greatly exaggerated.

The accomplished chemist Alan Bard nails this problem in an editorial that castigates the current system for sacrificing the actual quality of research at the altar of the ability to bring in research funds. The editorial succinctly points out that in the race to secure these funds, scientists are often tempted to hype their research proposals so that the end product is more smoke and less fire. And of course, the biggest casualty is the education of further generations of scientists, those who are going to bring about the very technological and scientific advances that make our world tick. The result of all this? Young people are dissuaded from going into academic science; if their worth is going to be mainly judged in dollars (and that too only after they turn 40), they might as well work for the private sector.

Now of course nobody is arguing against scientists being able to file patents or apply for large grants. Money flowing in from these endpoints can sustain further research which today on the whole is more expensive. But as Bard’s article makes it clear, these activities are often becoming the primary and not the secondary focus of universities. That goes against the spirit of research and it undermines the very meaning of intellectual scholarship.

But most importantly, and Bard does not explicitly mention this, I think that the current environment makes it appear to young scientists just entering the game that they need to necessarily do expensive science in order to be successful. I think part of this belief does come from the era of big accelerator physics and high profile molecular biology. But this belief is flawed and it has been demolished by physicists themselves; this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to scientists who produced graphene by peeling off layers of it from graphite using good old scotch tape. How many millions of dollars did it take to do this experiment?

Sure, low hanging scientific fruits accessible through simple experiments have largely been picked, but such a perspective is also in the eye of the beholder. As the graphene scientists proved, there are still fledgling fields like materials science where simple and ingenious experiments can contribute to profound discoveries. Another field where such experiments can provide handsome dividends is the other fledgling field of neuroscience. Cheap research that provides important insights in this area is exemplified by the neurologist V S Ramachandran, who has performed the simplest and most ingenious experiments on patients using mirrors and other elementary equipment to unearth key insights into the functioning of the brain. These scientists have shown that if you find the right field, you can find the right simple experiment.

Ultimately, few can doubt that cheap experiments are also more elegant, and one derives much more satisfaction from simply mixing two chemicals together to generate complex self-assembled structures than using the latest accelerator to analyze gigabytes of computer data, although the latter may also lead to exciting discoveries. The beauty of science still lies in its simplicity.

But as Bard’s article suggests, are university administrations going to come around to this point of view? Are they going to recruit a young researcher describing an ingenious tabletop experiment worth five thousand dollars or are they going to go for one who is going to pitch for a hundred thousand dollars worth of fancy equipment? Sadly, the current answer seems to be that they would rather prefer the latter.

This has got to change, not only because simple experiments still hold the potential to provide unprecedented insights in the right fields, but also because the undue association of science with money misleads young researchers into thinking that more expensive is better. It threatens to undermine everything that science has stood for since The Enlightenment. The function of academic scientists is to do high-quality research and mentor the next generation of scientist-citizens. Raising money comes second. A scientist who spends most of his time securing funds is no different from a corporate lackey soliciting capital.

Science, which has nurtured and sustained our intellectual growth and contributed to our well-being for four hundred years, is like an eagle held aloft by the wind of creativity and skepticism. How can this magnificent bird soar if the wind fueling its flight and holding it high starts getting charged by the cubic centimeter?



Blogger Jessica said...

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9:35 PM  
Blogger NuMu said...

"one derives much more satisfaction from simply mixing two chemicals together to generate complex self-assembled structures than using the latest accelerator to analyze gigabytes of computer data"

Thats hardly a fair assessment. One derives immense satisfaction from actually putting together the latest accelerator and detector -- then more satisfaction from analyzing the results.

I see the point. Money does have a big influence in research today, but some research can only be done by big experiments. A big reason that big accelerators have been built is that they are essential to answer certain questions -- not simply because the money is available.

1:05 PM  

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