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I think you mentioned somewhere that you are aiming for early-career researchers, not so much for established group leaders. Being an early-career researcher myself (postdoc), my first thought was that your program could easily turn out to be a trap. At first, it looks like a fantastic opportunity because freedom and independence, etc. However, I'm sure that you are looking for high risk / high reward projects. So there is, by definition, a very real possibility that some of your funded projects will fail. What happens with the PIs of those projects? It will be very hard for them to return to a more traditional career stream in academia because they will lack a strong publication record and teaching experience. Researchers are in this respect different from start-up founders, because a failed start-up is not the end of the world and you can start over again. In contrast to that, there are usually no second chances in academia, at least not at that career stage. So it seems that you are asking people to stake everything on one card. My question is: How are you going to manage the individual career risks associated with this approach to science funding?

Well, that's fucked up about academia. All the more reason to create alternatives. Do you really want to be part of a system that does not allow for failure?

At a minimum, I expect YCR researchers to be turning down job offers from YC companies all the time.

Speaking as a researcher, IMO you might be belittling the OP's concern. While the YC initiative is noble, it has yet to be tested. I have worked in research and tech startups, and in very many ways the two couldn't be more different. Some of the best biotech research comes from incremental and ponderous study of minutiae, not 'ends driven' processes.

From the perspective of a biotech researcher in the US, the funding model here is broken. As a result of funding levels falling for more than a decade, and universities being less willing to invest in individuals without consistent major funding, getting grants has become a very political process.

I applaud YC's efforts. We need alternatives, but I am not sure that YC is interested in the same kinds of research that the legacy funding system used to support. Science is not sexy. The results can be incredibly sexy, but you never go in looking for those sexy results.

EDIT: In addition, it's worth considering the difference in the peak talent age of a researcher as compared to a programmer. You can code in your bedroom as a preteen, but it's very difficult to get unfettered access to a molecular research laboratory before the age of 22. The best researchers are older, and that changes the equation in important ways.

Speaking as a researcher, IMO you might be belittling the OP's concern.

Speaking as someone who left academia close to two decades ago, sama hit the nail on the head.

The kinds of people that sama is targeting are ones who in the current system are going to wind up in postdocs or teaching adjuncts. With the way that universities are structured, all incentives are to have as many of these as possible doing teaching, pay them as little as possible, string them along on as long as possible, and reward as few as possible with the golden apple of tenure. These incentives have been taken to an outrageous extent. If you are a young researcher and are concerned that YCR is too risky, then you're not being honest about your own prospects.

Increased funding for research does not solve this problem. The university system structurally creates more PhDs than it can create jobs for unless the university system is growing rapidly. This was last true in the 1950s and 1960s, but has not worked out for most grad students since. Shrinking is admittedly worse than steady, but both are bad.

Therefore the YCR opportunity gives researchers a chance to do research that might or might not be better than a regular postdoc, and significantly improved job prospects if it doesn't. The best way to address that issue is to be honest about it.

I can see that. More options are always good. Industry has long been a lucrative option. However, I see the OP's concern relating to certain types of research that are largely supported in academia alone. Sam suggest that YCR is an alternative to academic research. Personally, I think YCR will represent another option more than a replacement. Which is fine. However, I don't imagine they can afford the waste needed for academic curiosity and the benefits it brings.

I see no gap between what Sam suggests and you're saying. When he says "another option" he means an alternative for researchers, and possibly for whole lines of research. It does not mean that academia as a whole gets replaced.

But I am highly confused about how the OP's concern relates to types of research that are largely supported in academia alone. If you're in a field of research that YCR is not interested in supporting, then going with YCR is not an option for you. And therefore it won't matter whether or not it is a good option.

The age aspect is interesting. Although the age of Nobel laureates has been steadily increasing, so has the 'gap' between discovery and award. [1] It's partly due to the amount of learning needed to contribute meaningfully, so starting earlier is always better.

It's not that hard to get access (perhaps not unfettered) to research labs in high school. In grade 10, I talked to a professor at UCLA and started coding physics simulations for him. Many people I know worked at research labs far before the age of 22. Zenefits CEO Parker Conrad won 3rd place at the Westinghouse Talent search for neural research at age 17. Feynman started tinkering early, and Einstein taught himself geometry at age 12.

If you're curious, you can push your way in. However, this isn't easy, and we need to make it easier for students to get involved earlier. At any rate, YCR will certainly find talent at all ages.

[1] http://priceonomics.com/why-nobel-winning-scientists-are-get...

Yes, the best most often start early. But unlike math and physics, disciplines like biomedical research are very resource intensive which leads to older talent as well. My BS was in physics, and I was coding for peer-reviewed research just over a year into my undergrad. In biotech, things are very different. It's typical for investigations that culminate in a scientific paper to take a couple of years and hundreds of thousands of dollars. We've had Seimen's Foundation Award winning high school students come out of our own lab, but these students aren't setting the course of the investigation. We don't have the money and they don't have the time. These students generally flesh out one aspect of an existing investigation. They do great work, but it would be extremely difficult for them to take a study from concept to completion.

I thought my PhD research was fantastic. It was good, but geez could I have wasted YCR's money at that point. :)

Discriminating on age is a poor strategy. Sure, it's an easy, stereotypical judgement to make, but that doesn't mean it's good.

You need to look at the individual you are evaluating. What were their experiences?

I fully agree with your analysis of the shortcomings of the academic system, but that's really a lame response and suggests that you didn't think this through. We're not talking about people in their early twenties who can invest some years in crazy experiments without fearing the consequences. Researchers at that stage have invested a substantial chunk of their lives in their careers and many of them have families to support. It would be foolish of them to take such a risk. If your attitude is, fuck them, it was their mistake to take up a career in academia, you will not attract the best people.

The world would be a better place if more people took career risks. The evidence is that the majority of interesting stuff was created by people taking big career risks, even though they're a minority of all researchers. So people who take career risks are more likely to create something great.

It sucks to lose at a career gamble but, at least in Silicon Valley, most people who fail but keep trying, end up doing pretty well.

Increasing risk alone does not increase the expected outcome of an enterprise, it reduces it. Risk is one important factor in the equations determining whether or not a business proposition like YCR's funding scheme is attractive, and for this reason the topic needs to be addressed. You are right that people who take more risks are more likely to create something great but the likelihood of a failure increases even more. Increasing risk therefore comes at a high price.

At the level of an individual increased risk does indeed reduce the expected outcome of an endeavor. However, societies where individuals are willing to take higher risks end up reaping the benefits that are only accessible by taking higher risks. One example of such benefits are scientific discoveries.

The current combination of risk-aversion and the focus on publications, tenure and positive results that permeates academia is antithetical to the uncertainty inherent in scientific research.

It seems to me that building new research institutions like YCR with a culture that resembles the one in tech which accepts and encourages risk-taking should be a priority if we are to continue to make progress in science.

Ha, the top comment was basically "not every industry is like Silicon Valley," and your response (among many others) is basically "life would be better if more industries were like Silicon Valley." Ok, that might be true, but it doesn't actually change the game on the ground today.

It's easy to say that "more people" should take career risks. It's harder to be the person who's spent their entire life striving toward a Ph.D. in the field of study they love, and face the (very real) possibility that they'll get one shot and that's it.

Even if they can land at a Silicon Valley company (not as likely for biomedical researchers, BTW), that's not their dream. Their dream was to do groundbreaking scientific research. That's why they got their Ph.D. instead of a job in Silicon Valley.

I don't think Sam addressed the commenter's concerns at all.


Not sama here, not affiliated with YC, but my guess is that a talented researcher who spent some time on a bad track at YCR could keep working for YC as a scientific advisor or work for one of the YC companies that might need his/her skills, if he/she can't go back to academia.

Many of the best people are going to quit academia anyway. In that situation why not give YC Research a chance? Go work for a tech company if it doesn't work out.

Many people decide to drop out of the academic system. Working for YC, Intel, or the DoD has similar long term limitations and is hardly a foolish risk.

I may be missing something, but I think the person you responded to was expressing that they fear you are setting up that exact situation: that there is no room for failure.

A single alternative (your program) doesn't do much to follow up for the "fail once, fail forever" system. You'd need a healthy ecosystem of competitors to your program to accomplish that. I guess someone who failed at a project in your research program could ostensibly transition to the industry side of their field, but there's still no going back to academia once you've left.

This reminds of what Peter Higgs (of Higgs Boson fame) said "I wouldn't be productive enough for today's academic system" http://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/dec/06/peter-higgs-b...

Isn't academia even more risky than YCR? ~90% of grad students, at some point in their career path, will be unable to find a tenured job and be forced to leave. What could possibly be more risky than that? YCR has some chance of failure, sure, but it has to be less than 90%.

What is the selection process and how does one apply?

Here are my thoughts on the topic: http://yansh.github.io/articles/phd-distruption/

Whatever the details turn out to be, kudos for committing so much money to research.

It'll be very exciting to see what happens.

With all due respect to Sam Altman and everything he's accomplished, this is a pretty snarky comment that does not spend the time to thoughtfully answer the very real concern that OP presented. It's a huge risk to leave academia to participate in the possibly career-destroying alternative that currently exists. Academia isn't perfect with respect to career opportunities, but it does produce results.

There are many industries out there for which failure is hard - one of them is being an athlete in pro sports. If you aren't at the top, you won't make it to the pros. Not to say that a system that allows for failure is bad or good, but that I think it requires more thought than a simple response.

Do you think the people that have signed up for YCR haven't considered the career risks?

It seems like anyone seriously interested in being a career researcher would know how unforgiving and competitive mainstream academia is.

I think that people who signed up for YCR are looking for alternatives, and who will themselves be part of a biased group. In other words, it might be people who have struggled to find tenure-track positions in academia.

I think I'm mainly echoing the opinion that it's a little quick to say Academia is "fucked up", since with all it's flaws, there are still great virtues, and a more thoughtful response would probably be more appreciated. I also see the tendency for people to quickly judge academia when they haven't been in academia.

Nobody is quicker to criticise academia than academics. Mind you, nobody is quicker to defend academia when criticised by outsiders than academics too.

Academia has misplaced incentives here and there and can certainly be unfair at times, but I've never actually run into any large system which didn't have those properties.

Still, let's not exaggerate how screwed the incentives are. Ultimately the best way to succeed in academic science is to do good work. (Also, do a lot of it, and be good at writing about how good your work is and why it should be given lots of money.)

The point is: YCR may be as unforgiving if not more. As things stand, I think YCR will attract people who are either reckless or have nothing to lose. Not sure if I would want to target that audience.

Leaving academia forever isn't career-destroying. It's closer to career making. There are so many more opportunities in industry. Nearly any CS academic, if they simply quit academia immediately and vowed never to return, that act alone would make their career more promising.

I definitely agree that leaving academia opens new doors that can make you just as happy, but I can also say that there is not a place outside academia that is like academia.

(disclaimer: I am a programmer who works for startups, but I've always admired scientists and researchers and have often contemplated a career switch to biotech.)

How can an entire discipline that is supposedly based on rational evidence-finding be such a cliquey clusterfuck? You're basically saying that if you don't follow the community rules, which more or less boil down to "hazing," you'll be excommunicated. Sounds like a cult, to me... as is any culture where "fear" is the primary motivator not to try something different.

Don't the laws of nature exist everywhere? Why can't anyone "do science," then?

I am glad I work in a meritocracy-based industry where anyone with any background can "ship" and succeed, and that has a low tolerance for bullshit.

Publications and grants are the currency of academia: if one doesn't have a recent publication record, a hiring committee doesn't have a way to gauge one's performance and capabilities as an academic; if one doesn't have a history of getting grants, a hiring committee will be (rightfully) skeptical of one's ability to bring in money. Excepting teaching schools, one is hired for one's abilities as an academic researcher to bring prestige (through publications and PR) and secure grants (along with that sweet, sweet F&A money). To get grants, one needs publications and preliminary data. One also needs grantsmanship skills, and one only gets those from direct experience.

A YCR "fellow" (or whatever it'd be called) would probably not be a competitive candidate for an academic position. It's not because they weren't in academia, it's because they will likely not have the work product used to measure performance in a academic setting. A hiring committee is not going to risk department funds on someone with a non-existent track record when there's a line out the door of other candidates.

I think OP is correct in perceiving that selecting YCR would probably close the door to a future in academia. I will also predict that YCR will have difficulty hiring top academic talent.

Reading between the lines in sama's comment - I think his objective is to replace academia, such that in 20 years, nobody will either attend or work for a university. Except he can't say that, because a.) he'd be laughed off this thread and b.) it's not to YC's advantage to alert competitors that they are, in fact, a threat.

The way it'd work out is the same way YC itself started: attract talented, smart people who have no patience for academia's politics. Let them make their own decisions. Build a brand on the discoveries they make, which attracts more people. Change public opinion about how research should be done. Eventually, the "top academic talent" realizes they've made a horrible mistake, and scrambles to join the new system that's replaced the old.

It is high time for such a change. It seems to me that tech culture is a better fit for scientific research than academia.

Scientific research is by its nature risky and uncertain. The current risk-averse culture of academia with its focus on grant applications, publishing, tenure, and positive results seems to discourage the risk-taking necessary in science.

On the other hand, the culture prevalent in tech accepts and encourages risk-taking, supports fast and easy recovery from failure and generally evaluates people on merit, not success or failure of their most recent project.

The broken aspects of academia are, it seems to me, an unavoidable consequence of needing a scalable system to determine who is doing well and who isn't, so you can give them money. I don't see how to dream up a system that gives you all the good of academia with none of the annoyances.

Think how hard the hiring problem is. How do you hire the best people? How do you assess someone's quality based on a few bits of paper and a short interview. Allocating funding in academia consists of solving problems like that, all the time.

"nobody will either attend or work for a university" -- universities will never disappear, at least not in 20 years because (a) there's too much business, cash flow, physical infrastructure, etc currently and (b) professions such as lawyers, doctors, accountants, etc. will still require formal education whether you call it a "university" or not.

Those are 2 reasons off the top of my head.

What does "publication" mean in an Internet Age when anyone can publish anything?

If you mean "vetted by a tiny handful of fallibly-human organizations such as Nature and Cell who may or may not decide to accept your paper regardless of its actual merit and based mostly on how 'hip' the research is," well then we're back to the hazing/cliquey-clusterfuck thing again.

"Grants" seem equivalent to "angel investments" in the startup world... which seem a lot saner, btw.


Publication means peer-reviewed and scholarly. Yes, a publication in Nature, Cell, Science, NEJM, etc. opens doors, but so do publications in discipline specific journals (like JACS). What matters is that one's papers be read and cited.

The system is far from perfect, but I don't think you'll find anyone in academia saying otherwise. I think of it being like Churchill's quote about democracy being the worst form of government, except for all the others that were tried.

What separates YCR from a thing like Bell Labs?

Bell Labs has produced a lot of great research and many researchers have had fruitful careers there and after.

Why can't YCR be the same?

Well, the fact that Bell Labs is/was an actual real thing, whereas YCR currently consists of good intentions and an amount of money which, while very generous on Sam's part, would fund a Bell Labs size organisation for a couple of days.

Track record of results, corporate memory, facilities, and the collective wisdom and experience of the fellows.

YCR could be the same, one day. Nevertheless, it's a very long and perilous road from YCR the proposal, to Bell Labs 2.0.

> I am glad I work in a meritocracy-based industry where anyone with any background can "ship" and succeed, and that has a low tolerance for bullshit.

Having worked in research academia, as a hospital medical tech, as a technical support bloke, and now several years across several different companies doing devops, I call hogwash. The software/startup world is replete with bullshit, more than anywhere else. Not to mention the huge amounts of time spent "chasing the shiny", where new tools are used because of fashion rather than merit. And network effects are just as strong in the startup world as in academia or medicine.

Occasionally a bedroom-based programmer can strike it lucky, but that's not the bulk of the startup world.

> Don't the laws of nature exist everywhere? Why can't anyone "do science," then?

Everyone can 'do science'. Youtube is filled with people doing science with everyday items. It's just that most human-scale stuff is low-hanging fruit and has now been 'done'. The edges of science where we're progressing with new knowledge need more expensive tools to observe them.

> I am glad I work in a meritocracy-based industry where anyone with any background can "ship" and succeed, and that has a low tolerance for bullshit.

This might be the most delusional thing I've read in this entire thread, and that's saying something. You can't take a look at founders of successful startups and sincerely tell me that anyone with any background can succeed. The whole idea of a startup excludes huge portions of the population (and I'm not talking about technical skills). Low tolerance for bullshit? The startup world is like 90% bullshit.

Your characterization of academia is way too exaggerated. Leaving academia has always been a semi-permanent move. There is no other job quite like academia, so unless you've done something truly amazing with your outside adventures then your resume is going to be inferior to people who have direct experience in the field. It's only logical.

This kind of got me fired up because academia is a hot mess. Instead of getting into a heated debate, I'll leave you with a quote...

“If you want total security, go to prison. There you are fed, clothed and given medical care. The only thing lacking...is freedom.”

People are mentioning Bell Labs, but at it's peak, Bell Labs was THE place to be for condensed matter (my area of physics) research. Academia is littered with people who worked at Bell labs during some part of their career. However, this was not really a risk. Bell Labs offered incredible funding for people and you had REALLLY brilliant people around you. In other words, it was quite competitive with academia and the only question for someone leaving who wanted to go to academia would be whether or not they would be good at getting grants (not a question of their research record). So, if you were a young researcher, starting at Bell wouldn't be a risk, it would be more like getting an offer from say MIT/Stanford without teaching or grant writing responsibilities.

This is a different scenario. YCR is just getting started, so there is definitely a risk involved for a young researcher. In academia, it would be good for a young postdoc to have a portfolio of projects. Maybe one that's likely to result in success, even if it's not groundbreaking and something else which is more high risk, high reward. As an advisor, I would be irresponsible if I didn't try to suggest such a strategy to anyone working for me--that way, even if the risky project fails, they have something they can show that they accomplished when they look for their next position. If YCR offers the researchers the chance to balance working on risky and not so risky projects, then it sounds like a good opportunity for a young researcher--they get funding (it's not clear what the time scale is--a postdoc in physics is 2-3 years) and a chance to focus on their research and to work with outside researchers. Typically (in physics), postdocs don't teach, so that's not an issue. However, the OPs worry that they won't be able to balance their portfolio is a reasonable fear.

Finally, on the issue of publication, this varies from field to field. I have reviewed papers from PRL, Nature, etc. At least when I do it, it's not the same as just writing a comment. One paper that I refereed was a methods paper. This paper will eventually find it's way into a "black box" computer program, so I thought it was important to be correct. So, besides looking in general at the method, I went through every step of the derivations, checked the integrals, looked for sign errors, etc. This is time consuming and a much different process from just writing a comment or two. A good journal does a lot to try to improve the signal/noise ratio of material. Mistakes are still made and sometimes the process breaks down. It could be improved--but

One of the great things about YCR is that it provides another route for people and it's important to experiment with different approaches. Until it's been tried, we simply won't know if this model works or not and I applaud them for putting up the money and resources to try the experiment. Also, the grant process has become rather broken--but that's a problem of there being a lot of excellent proposals out there (I've reviewed grants before), but not enough money out there to fund many of them. Again, I've heard cases where the process has broken down based on politics, but more of what I've seen and heard is that reviewers see a LOT of things that they would like to fund, but there's just not enough money to go around. So, researchers end up spending a lot of time submitting multiple proposals to multiple agencies because the chance of success is too low....

I hope YCR works out!!! But, I do hope that they allow their researchers to do some hedging by working on some incremental projects as well as high risk projects.

Sure, you have to make a calculated decision of whether that's worth it. If you think you'd have a better expected return on staying in academia, you should just do so. I think there's plenty of talented folks who don't expect such a high return from academia for whom YCR provides a far better opportunity for success.

I know people who have worked at places like Bell Labs for awhile and then gone back to academia.

It's not easy, but if you succeed (and publish) then you can often get an academic job afterwards.

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