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Concentration of knowledge & funding cuts

Two topics about the relationships of science and society were recently discussed in the physics blogosphere: funding cuts, especially for high-energy physics, and the desire of elite universities to absorb the top research in cutting-edge disciplines. Let me briefly say what I think about both.

Funding cuts

For the year 2008, high-energy physics has seen the heaviest losses in the U.S. but also the U.K. Fermilab is one of the major casualties and the resources will drop by 10 percent or so. Various scientists protest. Generally, I think it is usually good if science is getting enough funding but it is certainly no dogma.

There are at least two basic reasons why funding reductions for facilities such as Fermilab are justified:

  1. Decreasing relative capacity of the facility to make dramatic discovery
  2. Damaged public perception of high-energy physics
Because I think that the society should be deciding about some "microscopic" numbers determining the total resources for science and their separation to a few roughly defined subdisciplines (but not the internal detailed redistribution that should be decided by the experts), these two reasons make it natural that the funding simply has to go South.

Fermilab vs the LHC

Concerning the Fermilab, I find it obvious that when we expect that the facility is soon going to become obsolete and superseded by the CERN's new collider, the calculation whether it is a good idea to invest a lot of money into Fermilab inevitably shifts.

Well, the luminosity and the energy per particle will simply become cheaper in less than a year, unless a catastrophe occurs. The market of ideas and experiments has to respond to this fact. A rational response is that it is probably a better idea to save the money and wait for the LHC that will be able to transform the same amount of money into a greater expectation value of scientific results. Many people are dissatisfied but most of the dissatisfaction is driven by personal interests, not a genuine interest of science.

Public perception of science

The second reason that has almost certainly contributed to the cuts is a deteriorating perception of high-energy physics by the public. The two infamous books and the media campaign surrounding them is a finite part of the story.

As far as I know, every single high-energy physicist - graduate student, postdoc, professor - at every good enough place knows that the comments of people like Peter Woit or Lee Smolin about physics are completely worthless pieces of crap. Peter Woit is a sourball without a glimpse of creativity who only spreads bad mood and confused, superficial propaganda. He has never contributed anything substantial to science and it is likely that he will never contribute anything of this kind in the future.

He's a typical incompetent, power-thirsty, active moron of the kind that is capable to destroy whole countries if he gets a chance to do it: think about someone like Robert Mugabe.

Analogously, Lee Smolin is a prolific, full-fledged crackpot who has written dozens of papers and almost every single one is a meaningless sequence of absurdities and bad science. Once again, everyone in the field knows that. But a vast majority of the people in the field think and say that these two people and their companions don't matter; they don't have any influence, and so forth.

However, in many cases, this slogan only justifies scientists' escape from their broader responsibilities. In other cases, the formulation is a symptom of pacifism after it has lost any touch with reality. The reality is that the two pseudoscientific ideologues - and a few others - have a significant influence on the society. 99% of the public are simply unable to figure out that Smolin's or Woit's writing is just garbage that no well-informed person should pay any attention to. They are unable to do it themselves and they have virtually no channels where they can learn this otherwise obvious fact from the people who can figure it out.

So the public image of high-energy theoretical physics and many of its proxies inevitably deteriorates. The funding cuts are partly explained by this fact even though there are other reasons, too.

Concentration of brains

The second topic I want to discuss is concentration of brains. As Cosmic Variance reported, Drew Gilpin Faust, the new president of Harvard University, said that less elite universities should prepare that they won't have funds to compete with elite places such as Harvard in cutting-edge scientific fields.

Now, I find it obvious that this is what leaders of powerful places probably expect - or at least pretend to expect - and what they want others to expect, too. And it is mostly true, too - at least in the long run.

Skillful and lucky people can occassionally accumulate in a place that is not the most expected one. But these are statistical fluctuations that can go in both ways and that usually average out in the long term. For example, Rutgers University became one of the leading string-theoretical think tanks in the early 1990s. They group was kind of lucky with people and with funding, too. What has happening at Rutgers University could have occurred in some of the Ivy League schools instead.

However, these things are unlikely to last. If a place has superior financial capabilities, it will eventually attract the people it needs to attract to become the top place. Moreover, such an outcome is good for science for the same reasons that make big corporations more efficient than their small competitors in the commercial sector and that makes imperialism work better in most respects than primitive forms of capitalism. A certain critical mass, an increase of helpful interactions, and an efficient self-organizing distribution labor of contribute to exhanced power and creativity of places with a lot of brains and resources.

This result is only to be expected if things work properly. Of course that if they don't, a place with a lot of brains is also able to waste a lot. But once again, in the long run, things should work most of the time so the argument assuming that things work is likely to give at least the right sign of the result.

So I don't believe the ideas that a uniform distribution of places and scientists is the healthiest environment for scientific progress. Just like the concentration of capital is essential for capitalism to achieve many things, the concentration of intellectual capital (as well as ordinary capital that scientists sometimes need) is often necessary to achieve certain results in science, too.

In the case of accelerators, the most extensive experiments on Earth, there is no doubt about it. But even if you look at the following category of scientific activities according to the magnitude of their projects - such as various genome projects - it is still likely that the concentration of experts into a few places will be a superior arrangement that will lead to faster progress for the same money.

What I wrote above might agree with the words of the current president of Harvard University and others. On the other hand, every sane person should also realize that only one of us is making a pure intellectual analysis here. The other one is also playing a game expected from a particular job, attempting to achieve certain goals. Of course that it is expected that the president of an elite university tries to make his or her university more exceptional.

But others have different tasks. In the short term and medium term, there also exist other mechanisms that allow e.g. a prestigious biological center to appear at an unexpected place. So the leaders of places of different sizes will obviously simplify the situation in different way and present different visions about the future of science and technology simply because their roles justify different strategies. It is obvious that different opinions will be heard and one shouldn't be shocked about it.

And that's the memo.

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