Organizing the "idea marketplace"

4 minute read

Sabine Hossenfelder (BackReaction) has written some extended thoughts about the “marketplace of ideas” in science, and some of the ways it may have gone wrong. Her thoughts are focused on her field, theoretical physics, but many of them will apply to evolutionary biology and human evolution – mainly because both are fields with a lot of media attention and where long-term projects may transcend the demands of short-term grant support.

The topic deserves wider discussion. I like many of the points she makes, and rather than quoting extensively, just recommend that you read it if you’re interested.

One thing that I appreciate is the way that she emphasizes the “selection pressures” intrinsic in the academic system, both in terms of funding, attention from peers, and attention from the press. The structural problem is that one of science’s major goals – results that make new scientific advances possible – may not be judged for many years after the results are made. So the quality of science is judged by other criteria: how popular a research agenda is with peers, how much attention it can attain, or how much grant funding a researcher acquires. Each is driven by social factors external to science, and these direct effort in ways that may not necessarily lead to long-term results.

She posits that different fields may be distorted by these pressures in different ways:

The results of such strategies are especially pronounced if competitive pressure is high and the selection works very fast, which in turn creates a system populated by scientists that did well under the present circumstances and thus see no reason to change it.

This jibes with my experience in genomics, where there are many short-term research positions and a lot of turnover between academia and industry. It is less true of evolutionary science. Even though single-authored papers have become less and less the norm, it is still possible for a single researcher to generate a long-term research agenda and support it with shoestring funding. Many of the senior respected evolutionary biologists are of this type. Field biology (and anthropology) will probably always retain this single-researcher model, even though collaborations have brought people together onto long-term projects.

I also appreciated her thoughts on interdisciplinary research and changing fields:

In the present system it is almost impossible for a researcher to change fields without risking severe drawbacks for his/her career. One of the reason is that researchers are hired into specific tasks, and for these nobody would be hired who hasn't previously worked on the field. Another problem is that grants typically require having former publications in a field to document expertise. It has been realized already decades ago that progress very often comes from interdisciplinary exchange. It is quite ironic that lots of funding goes into such new inter-disciplines while the possibility for researchers to just change between fields (or even sub-fields!) is hindered. Solution again: Have faith in people who have proved to do good research and just let them follow their interest.

One of the main reasons for my research successes has been that I apply methods and data from many fields. Institutional support for that kind of work has been very high – university administrators love interdisciplinary efforts. This may be because administrators are among the few people who actually have to talk to people in different fields for their jobs! Or, more cynically, because the more different departments interact, the less they agitate against each other for resources.

But structural support for this kind of research from granting agencies has been very low. There are some programs that encourage interdisciplinary applications, but these tend to require multiple PIs (each experts in their fields) or solicit funding requests only for very specific areas – “funding priorities.”

As a final note, the comments are also worth reading – if for no other reason than to see how much the way young physicists think of their field overlaps with young biological scientists.

And for this quote, from Nobel-winner J. J. Thomson:

If you pay a man a salary for doing research, he and you will want to have something to point to at the end of the year to show that the money has not been wasted. In promising work of the highest class, however, results do no come in this regular fashion, in fact years may pass without any tangible result being obtained, and the position of the paid worker would be very embarrassing and he would naturally take to work on a lower, or at any rate a different plane where he could be sure of getting year by year tangible results which would justify his salary. The position is this: You want one kind of research, but, if you pay a man to do it, it will drive him to research of a different kind. The only thing to do is to pay him for doing something else and give him enough leisure to do research for the love of it.