Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
The Newton hypothesis: Is science done by a small elite? (nintil.com)
121 points by barry-cotter 3 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 94 comments

I don't find the dismissal of the Matthew Effect ('the rich get richer') even vaguely convincing here.

The Bol (2018) paper shows that scientists that are just above the cut-off to receive an early career grant tend to do much better in their subsequent career than those just below it. Both the paper and blogpost explain this away as a "participation effect": the winners end up applying for many more grants, while the non-winners "cease" doing so.

However, it seems disingenuous to frame this as an issue of motivation or encouragement without thinking about why else this could happen. In many cases, a scientist needs to bring in grant money to keep their job. There's a very clear causal chain between <no grant> -> <no money> -> <no job>. Less severely, it also takes (grant) money to make (grant) money. Most funding agencies want to see preliminary data, which takes money (and staff) to collect. They also want to see evidence of productivity and 'excellence', which is again dependent on money; in some cases, bringing in money is even taken as prima face evidence of those qualities!

In the previous section, the author also discusses how the "top scientists train future top scientists." Some of this may be due to their ability to select the most talented future researchers from a pool of 22 year olds, but it beggars belief that there aren't network effects here too on top of any improvement in training.

For example, big well-funded labs have access to better equipment and technical support, which allows their members to fully express their scientific abilities. There are more opportunities for synergy and collaboration than in a small group. Since top scientists are frequently invited to give talks, their work is better advertised, with knock-on effects on citations. Recommendations and letters of support are vital for hinting, grants, and tenure too.

> in some cases, bringing in money is even taken as prima face evidence of those qualities!

I can't tell how playful you're being, but in case it's not clear, in my experience at most R01 institutions, this is the norm, not the exception.

I have so many problems with this piece and its line of thinking I don't even know where to start. The current academic system is characterized by huge gap between reality and the benchmarks that most attempts to try to evaluate theories about academic success and support fail from the get-go because they're so oversimplified.

The piece basically adopts this standard paradigm where you have researchers just doing their thing, publishing, putting out into the world, and all you have to do is "read out" their output. The framing of it, in terms of "the distribution of talent", while meaningful at some level, completely ignores the context any given researcher finds themselves in, in terms of institutional culture, support, corruption, everything. There are metrics, and they are gamed in ways that are hard to even start to ennumerate.

To take the Li and Agha paper discussed later in the piece: the author notes that "the paper tries to control for prestige by using dummy variables for having a PhD, an MD, or both, and how many years a PI has been in academia" before admitting "these are highly imperfect as proxies of prestige." This is an absurd understatement.

In my experience, "prestige" is an extremely diffuse and elusive thing that has more to do with social networking than institutional prestige per se. Previous papers have shown, for example, that one of the biggest predictors of grant receipt is having previously published with people on the review panels. This alone should be striking to anyone, but it points to how this works: it's not superficial markers of prestige necessarily like US News rankings, but subtle things like social associations etc.

In recent years there's been a certain amount of attention to sexism in academics of various forms. Putting sexism per se aside, it's nevertheless an example of a social process that has nothing to do with academic talent per se that neverthless can have huge impacts on academic careers. For every social-environmental variable like sexism, there's some other variable operating on some other person characteristics, like age, race, other social background etc.

I could go on and on. I think it's telling that the vast majority of the work cited in the piece is pre-2005 (all but one paper?). I would say the academic environment before, say, 2000 is almost inapplicable to today in many respects, and even the period 2000-2005 is very different.

Extremely insightful comment. I agree with you I had very similar feelings as you when reading the article. Essentially I feel the article is so off in its assumptions that it is hard to criticise except for saying "it's rubbish" and I thank you for pointing to some of the specifics that are wrong with it.

What do you think are the main differences between the pre-2000 academia and the academia now?

The NIH budget had been relatively flat until 1998-2003, when it literally doubled. This caused a sea-change in how biomedical research was organized.

One might naively expect that a massive injection of money would only make research easier. However, universities reacted by expanding dramatically. Many of those new hires, especially at med schools, are on "soft money" contracts, where they're responsible for bringing in enough external grant money to cover their own salary AND research expenses. As a result, it has never been harder to get a research grant: success rates that were >30% have slipped into the low teens at some institutes. At the same time, the size of the standard "modular" grant at the NIH hasn't changed, so people are competing harder to get less inflation-adjusted money. On top of that, science is getting harder as we discover the easy stuff and expectations are rising for what constitutes "a story."

In short, post-doubling science isn't a professor pottering around between classes; it's become a big, competitive business.

At the risk of being controversial if you accept the premises of this article you have to concede that most scientific progress comes from rich white men and that there is no point in funding the rest. The way things are isn’t a good source of information.

But I don't accept the premise of the article, and that's why. Heck, you could have said the same thing about baseball or basketball pre-1950.

Is it more likely that....

A) Rich, white men have some innate and preternatural ability to form and test hypotheses, or...

B) Like literally every other human endeavor, apparent scientific ability also heavily depends on the means and opportunity to express it, public awareness and acceptance of the results, and a dash of luck?

I don’t accept it either. It’s concerning to see such thoughts in the upper echelons of power.

One way to fix this is to completely break the apprenticeship model of higher academia and professional careers. For Law, Medicine, and any other field requiring significant time in the classroom, ensure that accreditation is state administered (or outsourced test like the SAT) with no requirement of time spend in the classroom. This breaks and limits the prestige factor conferred by institution and reduce their overall influence. The way software engineers are hired, while flawed, remains one of the most meritocratic ways of hiring and distributing funding.

This is a fascinating question that does a great job of bringing realism and idealism head to head. If we're realistic, obviously a lot of people have great potential, but only a very few will both have enough potential and enough drive to realistically hit it big; but can we tell who they are? Idealistically, it's not entirely fair to give a select few all the support; but is it fair to deprive all of humanity of the advances an elite few could make, just to make the elite few's contemporaneous peers feel equally attended to?

Personally, I think when you stack the probabilities of potential * interest * means * drive * luck, progress _is_ led by an elite few. The elite few are sometimes bolstered by a massive support system, but part of being the elite, successful few is being able to garner that support, whether through personality, luck, etc.

For levity, I'll also add that one thing I love about history in general is finding a tidbit like this:

> It is fitting that a pair of Coles gets a reply by a pair of MacRoberts (1986) who argue that bibliographies are incomplete.

To me it's not clear what realism and idealism is in your framework; my idea of each I think might be different from yours.

Katalin Karikó was denied tenure at Penn.

Douglas Prasher ended up becoming a courtesy shuttle driver for a Toyota dealership.

These are a couple of the many of examples that only get attention for how blatantly absurd they are. For each one of these types of stories there are undoubtedly many others you never hear about.

The entire reason why these conversations are happening, about how to fund research and support research, is because of how absurd these types of outcomes are.

This is the first time I hear about Katalin Karikó and Douglas Prasher and their stories. Thank you for mentioning them.

I'm shocked (in a way)...but on the other side I'm not very surprised. :( Occasionally I would hear or read threads and news talking about the problems in science (research, funding, education) like the one we're commenting on. Still these stories are on another level (or maybe it's just a feeling I have, because there are faces, official news clips, statements etc. so we can relate to those people on a personal level). And when I just think that there are, who knows how many, people like these...

| Ah the dreamers ride against the men of action / Oh see the men of action falling back - leonard cohen

To champion the idealists for a moment, what's the practical implication of realism in this case? Elitism in retrospect is one thing, but trying to bring it forward or explicitly advancing it seems like it would result poorly. By what criteria would an Albert Einstein, the patent clerk, ever have been selected? Your best bet at an Einstein is to let everyone in and see who discovers relativity.

It seems to me that the only way to enrich the elite is to empower the masses, so to speak. In any case, I think it's more important to focus on what circumstances allow a person's potential to emerge. Potential is a highly available resource.

Like the author note, the problem isn't that most will fail. It's that most will never try, tenure or no. The free mindedness required to even attempt greatness is often frivolous. Frivolousness is more of an egalitarian than an elitist hallmark.

*Note: I'm not referring to politics or economics in any way. Just playing along with the language of the article.

> the patent clerk, ever have been selected

The brilliance and drive he displayed, as a child, would be a good place to start. But, I'm a believer that knowledge is limited by dedication and intelligence is limited by nature. This belief came after I suffered from a 6 hour TIA, that passed through my cerebrum, causing me to lose some of my intelligence. This was a wakeup call that made me realize that the ease that I had before wasn't my own accomplishment, or somehow related to my efforts.

>causing me to lose some of my intelligence.

Temporarily or permanently? I'm curious, because I've likely had one too (much shorter though). I definitely noticed my inability to think properly. Medium-term memory (not sure what it's called, but remembering anything past a dozen seconds) was also limited or non-existent.

Yes, me too within the first months. It improved steadily over about a year, but didn't change too much after that. The best analogy is that I would previously think in long paragraphs, and after I would think in sentences. I had to write notes as I was thinking otherwise I would lose my train of thought pretty easily.

But, I had pretty great success with hyperbaric oxygen therapy [1] in combination with oxiracetam [2][3]. I would highly recommend looking into it, and it might be covered by your insurance. I was really struggling with work, and it definitely helped that, my lack of motivation, my muted personality, and some anger issues. My wife says she noticed a big difference and claims I'm now back to normal. I would say that I now can think in short paragraphs, which is sure a lot better than before! My brain is my job, so the cost was easily justified. It really was a big change in a short amount of time.

The weirdest and shittiest lingering problem is that I have apparently mostly lost the sensation of needing to breathe. Before the oxygen therapy I could just hold my breath and literally not notice. It took me passing out a few times to realize that I was forgetting to breath during conversation. This made exercise difficult. After the oxygen therapy, a slight urge to breathe has come back. I can exercise, and I'm not afraid to swim now, but if I'm deep in thought, I'll forget to breathe and end up feeling pretty terrible. I plan on buying a continuous, wearable, oxygen monitor...

[1] https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130123144218.h...

[2] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31057392/ Note that the oxiracetam was my thing, not prescribed by the doctor (he did approve of it though, as long as I was taking some choline supplement). I now take ~1g/day with 200mg centrophenoxine (choline), and fish oil on weekdays. This seems to really help.

[3] Can't find the exact NIH reference for this one that I really liked, but I'll reply when I find it. But, the concept is (my understanding) that capillaries grow where oxygen is needed. A TIA will tremendously clog capillaries. The neurons that were deprived from the clogged capillaries don't receive enough oxygen to metabolism enough to promote new capillary growth. So they stay "dormant". Promoting capillary growth and waking up these dormant ones is how someone with a stroke really benefits. This was all echoed by the doctor that reviewed my situation before the therapy could start.

valid point

I'm not denying talent, just stating that in this context (rare advances) I don't think it's the main limiting factor.

> By what criteria would an Albert Einstein, the patent clerk, ever have been selected?

By the criteria that were in effect at the time, which weren't that different from the ones in effect now. Einstein was working as a patent clerk when he published his 1905 papers, but patent clerk was just a day job, and everybody who mattered in physics knew that. He already had a degree and was working on his Ph.D. (which he was awarded soon after). He took the patent clerk job because he couldn't get a teaching post after getting his first degree, because none of his professors would give him a good recommendation; but he still had plenty of contacts in physics. His 1905 papers were published in Annalen der Physik, the most prestigious physics journal in the world at that time, and that wouldn't have happened if he'd been just some random patent clerk.

> Frivolousness is more of an egalitarian than an elitist hallmark.

While this is true, I think it's also true that the ability to be frivolous even about big questions like the fundamental laws of physics is rare. It's egalitarian because frivolity is fundamentally opposed to any kind of elitism, not because frivolity about fundamental questions is common.

Agreed. In practice though, it might not make a difference. When it comes to funding, appointments to positions and such... we are elbow deep into constructing a culture. Elitist cultures, most histories show, are easy to create. So are hegemonic mindsets, and the two often go together. heterodoxy is rare and hard.. hence harder to maintain in a culture and individually.

The premise of treating everyone equally under the law (or otherwise) despite knowing for certain that not everyone is equal is that it helps prove beyond reason of doubt who the elite truly is. That is, the top contributers are in part there because of socioeconomic factors, exeptional parental support or a culture of sorts (Think Chess versus Go) But trying to at least give everyone resources to compete helps us find the exeptional few.

I'm not sure what you mean by "premise", but I really hope that the justification for "treating everyone equally under the law (or otherwise)" is not because doing so "helps prove beyond a reason of doubt who the elite truly are". For that would imply that if a better way is found of "proving" who the elite truly are, we could abandon the idea of equal treatment. Or that we could abandon equal treatment if we agreed that "proving who the elite are" is actually unimportant. In fact, I'm personally skeptical of the value of "proving beyond reason of doubt who the elite truly are", but also highly committed to the principal of equal treatment, so I think the two are unrelated.

Perhaps I am misunderstanding your point?

As I understood it: since we don't know who the exceptional few are, we want to give a fair bit of support at the start to everyone, this will allow the hidden talents to show up.

nine_k summed it up.

"For that would imply that if a better way is found of "proving" who the elite truly are, we could abandon the idea of equal treatment." In a way this already happens, equal treatment is out the window as soon as a doctor makes an assesment based on race or gender or country of origin. the basis of new drug trials is to make a representative 'equal' group of people. however in its wake if certain drugs are found to interfere with pregnancy then a doctor will not treat patients equally. In law beside the requirement to have a law degree, certain companies want lawyers from prestiegious schools or with exeptional grades. there is no equal chance to get hired here. Though what is a danger for these companies is that the grades and graduation process must not favour any particular candidate on anything other what the company wants to select for (Merit). if their grades are not aquired trough a fair process then companies will lose more and more of their guaranteed value.

Equality seems to serve as a way to find the exeptional few and prove by the many thousands in the same bracket that their skill is based on merit.

I think that the few who have both the ability and the drive to move science forward can be filtered by these two traits, and sort of already are. Their ability allows them to enter academia after working hard on their degree. Their drive keeps them in, severely underpaid compared to industrial careers.

There is a fable about a king and the royal astronomer. The king finds out that the astronomer is paid half as much as the palace's gatekeeper, and wants to increase the astronomer's pay to be comfortably above the gatekeeper's, to help further the science. The astronomer begs him to not do it, else those who now aspire to serve as a palace gatekeeper would try to secure the more lucrative position of the royal astronomer, to the detriment of the actual astronomical studies.

Unfortunately, currently academia equally selects by the ability to write grant applications full time and, at least in some areas, by the ability to produce showy results. Also, the choice is usually between rather short contracts and very hard-to-obtain tenure; the job security is pretty shaky unless you manage to become a full professor. This is sad and frustrating to those who strives to do science. I've seen a few of my acquaintances leave academy for industry, some with relief, some grudgingly.

> but part of being the elite, successful few is being able to garner that support, whether through personality, luck, etc.

Exactly. I have to agree with this. The top players rise to the top.

I don’t think that’s obviously true.

In my grad school cohort, many of those who left academic research were just as smart and successful as those who stayed.

On top of that, “rising” often takes time which our current system doesn’t always allow for: there are lots of opportunities gated by time-since-degree and age.

I don't think you can lump physics, life sciences, chemistry etc all together. This article mainly pertains to physics, which is notable for being more cathedral like than other fields, where prior work is very foundational. Physics is also a field where mathematical aptitude is particularly important, and there is significant variation between people in this dimension with some clear outliers.

The small elite theory doesn't work in life sciences in my estimation. There are no life science 'geniuses', it isn't that sort of field. The scientists that won the prize for CRISPR have many excellent qualities, but they are not really distinct from millions of other scientists with similar qualities. I have had a bit to do with 2 other life sicence nobel laureates, and I can verify that they are not John von Neumann in a lab coat. The important thing for CRISPR is that Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier had the opportunity to be studying something like repetitive sequences in bacterial DNA. If you cut science funding, you could easily annihlate fields like this. CRISPR might have taken another 20 years to be discovered, or longer. Charpentier struggled to get funding, living from grant to grant in small labs until she hit upon CRISPR.

Life science research is also conducted in a weird way, where usually the PI mostly does administrative work while grad students / post docs do the actual experiments. It’s weird that they become experts in their field and then put their pipettes down. I feel like in physics the Van Neumann types are always doing research, always at the chalk board, etc.

At least in condensed matter physics I can say that the PIs are not in the lab at all doing research. They lead from behind the desk and the grad students and postdocs are the ones running the experiments and data analysis. The PIs just react to the data presented and offer guidance.

It's a weird system, before they became professors they were running experiments in a lab and were able to get good results to get published and become a professor, clearly there's a skill set there. But the minute they get professor job we take these people out of the lab and put them behind a desk. It's kind of like yanking LeBron James off the court during his prime and making him coach.

Yeah, I saw this in action when I was a grad student at UCSF. In one of the labs I rotated in, the PI (pre-tenure professor) still had a lab bay filled with the most impressive display of reagents I've ever seen (he was a physical chemist). He would go over, look at it sadly, and then disappear into his office to write grants all day. What a waste of talent.

That's more an experimental vs theoretical boundary. It's like hardware vs software, the former just has extra physical constraints that introduce significant overhead that is most efficiently managed in a hierarchy so there are very few practicing PIs.

AFAIK there aren't many (or any) renegade theoretical physicists/mathematicians working on teams at the LHC or ITER or similar sized projects, as an extreme example. Just getting plugged into the ecosystem and getting time to run an experiment is close to a full time job, let alone actually designing a meaningful experiment. Hell, even acquiring lab equipment for small scale experiments is a huge time sink, especially for the nicer stuff that's so expensive it requires labs pooling together and fighting over the allotments.

I'm not so sure that PIs not doing any real work is the real problem though based on my reading of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and personal experience. Science is about breaking new ground and I'm not convinced that seniority instills ability like it does with mathematics and engineering, where pattern matching builds on itself and its utility increases exponentially. Seniority in science does improve one's ability to navigate the scientific bureaucracy, but the problem is that the PIs accumulate power and the entire system calcifies around them. It was already such a noticeable phenomenon that Plank coined his principle in 1950 ("Science progresses one funeral at a time") when there were far more individual PIs who did their own work. Now we've taken it to the extreme where each subfield has a small group of larger labs creating an incestuous circle of peer reviewers, PIs, and postdocs who end up dominating the subfield just out of sheer numbers and prestige.

> AFAIK there aren't many (or any) renegade theoretical physicists/mathematicians working on teams at the LHC or ITER or similar sized projects, as an extreme example.

the research productivity at LHC and ITER is extremely low. I wonder if these are correlated?

> The Newton hypothesis: Is science done by a small elite?

That's a horrible re-framing of Sturgeon's law. I'm a big believer of it, especially in science and technology. But where does the word 'elite' come from?

Let's say you are a recent PhD doing a post-doc somewhere decent, not a top institute, but not low-ranked either. Your thesis was average, your post-doc research topic is kinda boring (for now). Well, does that make you a non-elite? You have 30 to 40 years of career ahead of you. Should you instead be grateful to find a lecturer position in the middle of nowhere and be satisfied with your career?

Not to single out, but does being a tenured professor, leading a STEM lab in MIT make you elite?

Again not to single out, and may he rest in peace, but Marvin Minsky ruined the field of AI for many decades with his narrow-mined critique of neural networks.

MIT tech review tried to bury the field of 'longevity research' with a vicious, below-the-belt attack on Aubrey de Grey in 2005.

STEM history is full of so-called 'elites' (i.e., those getting fame early in their careers, or resting on the laurels of one branding or another) ruining the overall progress for everyone, and setting humanity back. This is not too unrelated to 'science progressing one funeral at a time' as observed by Planck.

Point: how do you know someone is 'elite'?

You don't. You find out after the fact, e.g., at the end of someone's career if they don't get an early break. In the meantime, you have to give them a chance, and check your 'elite' bias.

Much of the first documented papers were done by people who had access to wealth and free time and wanted to just let other people know what they discovered.


Most of the scientific breakthroughs are achieved by select few super talented scientists. But since we have no way to tell ahead of time who will become such a genius, we should educate and employ large number of scientists even if only tiny few of them will become next Einsteins.

Reminds me of the Ratatouille monologue

> In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto: Anyone can cook. But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau’s, who is, in this critic’s opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France. I will be returning to Gusteau’s soon, hungry for more.

The whole monologue is brilliant. It's an amazing film.

reading it in his voice really adds some oomph to his speech

> Most of the scientific breakthroughs are achieved by select few super talented scientists.

It isn't at all clear that this is true. A lot of real advances are made by a largish collection of people plugging away and sharing ideas. We really love the narrative around the archetype of a lone inventor, but it's rarely that clear cut. This is exacerbated by the incentive structures - we want to pick "winners".

This isn't to say that there aren't people who really stand out, far from it. But it's probably a mistake to account too much progress to them.

Or we shouldn't.

Education gets diluted the more people are educated. Think about how much you learn in university in a short time compared to how much you learn in school.

Now imagine you would have gone to school only with the ones who finished university. How much more would you have learned during that time?

Then imagine a fully equipped university that isn't filled with rich kids but with the brightest.

Think of Katalin Karikó[1]. We don't trust the degrees because everybody can get one nowadays. That's why established figures in a field decide what is worthwhile to research instead of giving that responsibility to the ones who have proven that they can think for themselves.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katalin_Karik%c3%b3

This already more or less exists in most countries. You have elite universities where some of the brightest tend to end up, in which the conditions to entry are quite harsh, and usually with institutionalized methods for different socio-economic classes to make it in. It's obviously not perfect, but it's an instinctive form of black swan farming that has emerged quite naturally.

>Then imagine a fully equipped university that isn't filled with rich kids but with the brightest.

Who's gonna pay for it?

Technically, the industry should afford to.

Commoditization of education so brightest kids can get the best of it is a net benefit to the industry.

But as long as industry is filled with dumbfuck MBAs it won't happen.

Isn't that pretty much what Caltech, IIT, the University of Tokyo or Cambridge or Oxford are?

No legacy admissions. No quotas. Large populations trying to get in through entrance exams and school performance?

(Lots of rich kids wind up at those places, but they have worked for it)

Who pays for the MBAs clogging up our economy?

The students by going into debt?

At least one was clandestinely funded.

I agree, but I'm not sure that's enough. "More people working on it" isn't always better.

I agree that have no way to tell ahead of time. That said, I don't think this works like buying a lot of lottery tickets. A breakthrough isn't random, even if it is unpredictable. It also isn't just a function of who the scientist inherently is. Circumstances may be the bigger half of the equation.

If a patent clerk shows up with relativity, there is no shortage of places that will provide him a desk and some pencils. Newton emerged out of aristocracy, as did Darwin and many others. Tenured professorships are/were an attempt to replicate those circumstances in many ways. Einstein came out of a patent clerk job. In today's terms this is a wfh with lots of bullshit time. We have a lot of math educated people today with these circumstances.

It's just a really hard question.. how do we get more "one offs." IIRC pg named it black swan farming. "Employ" is a broad term and I suspect how its defined matters here.

I also wonder how much access to material resources matter. For mathematical exercises, you don't need much and if you do a modern laptop and open source tools are probably fine for most subfields, but access to high-energy conditions, or wet-labs are harder to come by.

I think it's very unlikely they don't play a huge role. Accessibility of all kind is essential, and the bar can never be low enough. I think the age of the internet has taught us this much.

I'm not sure it's possible to educate such people. Newton's breakthroughs came during a temporary excursion from university. Einstein was considered a failure who would not do as he was told. Darwin dropped out of medical school.

These are not the sort of people you would give a job too, either, because they were basically unpleasant and unreliable in everyday life.

that's a super biased sampling, for every Einstein you're going to have 100 other impactful researchers who followed the traditional route of schooling

I think a better way of framing it is that people with some talent will emerge naturally no matter their circumstances

I had the same thought a while back on the "bullshit jobs" idea. We know that a large percentage of jobs are probably unnecessary. The problem is that we don't know which jobs those are, and finding out is surprisingly hard.

A whole lot of things are like this.

I think they may be underestimating the interactions that scientists have with other perhaps lesser folks in their field.

For example, Einstein may not have been able to publish the special theory of relativity without the work produced by lesser known scientists such Lorentz, Michaelson, Morley, Maxwell, Grossman. And transitively all of those scientists were undoubtedly influenced by others who may be even lesser known or influential.

In my view it's a mistake to assume that we only need the elite, and that we only need breakthroughs.

I'm certainly one of the lesser folks. Much lesser. Even while in grad school, I knew that the arc of my career was not going to bend towards tenure. I wrote up what is somewhat disparagingly referred to in my field as an "equipment thesis" and went to industry. But today, I develop scientific equipment, so my equipment thesis wasn't so far off base. ;-)

But front-line science research can't be done without equipment that is developed by engineering teams that include some scientists. Likewise for a lot of important but less glamorous things such as figuring out if your water is safe to drink, or if you have COVID-19. And if those teams are going to include some scientists, then you also need people who get a science education and go into teaching.

And in a better world, you might even have a few science educated people who work at various levels of government.

What do you mean by "equipment thesis"?

Scientific apparatus can be a major obstacle or it can give more leverage than cash.

At 70 messages almost all the problems in this thread I felt as a child, then began to understand as a student.

Great breakthroughs had always been accomplished by the elite in some way or another, but without royal patronage or something like that you were going to be very unlikely to build the kind of laboratory you need to do any new experimentation & discovery you may have in mind.

If you're going to create your best technology you're going to need a place to build and audition your contenders.

Plus 90 percent or more of that effort is always wasted so you have to get busy, start early and never stop.

So that's what I did.

With limited privileges for resources the only way to come close to productivity is to continuously improve the ability to extract far more performance from the same assets compared to accepted operators. That's not easy and you don't get far the first few years.

If you wait until you've got the resources of a gentleman scientist before you get underway you may be waiting a while. I don't think that success model comes back in style every generation anyway or we'd have more of that legendary type of success.

Remember in the not-too-distant past, computers had been essential for years but no individual had yet owned one personally.

Almost all technology beyond pure math could not be well pursued without a specialized facility.

You saved up your other creative abilities until you had access to what it took to carry them out, then made the most of it while you were equipped.

Today it's thought if you are going to make the most of a gifted researcher's time they are going to need to hit the ground running in a facility that is established and has momentum. There will be some kind of expectation to contribute to the momentum of the facility, and there will need to be an open slot. The only things like that are called institutions for a reason, because they're staying right where they are.

I'm still not so sure if I'm ready for an institution.

It might be worthwhile to ask the bench workers what kind of facility they would be able to invent more things in, then go ahead and let them take the time to build it while the PhD's are still going at their full rate in their preferred way.

I say it's possible for the bench workers to come from behind and get some wins.

Focus on getting the most out of the equipment while the PhDs are busy at their desks and conferences, then spin the collateral progress out into companies faster than the PhDs have normally been on the path to have that happen.

Plus the PhDs have to be satisfied once their papers are well-cited and have reached their hard-won goal of clawing their way to the rare top position against all odds, so they should be entitled to relax a bit more each decade as this process itself has become more challenging, and not do any lowly bench work.

It might just take a gentleman's agreement to get promising scientists to aspire to a hierarchy-free class of operation you don't always get every generation.

Statistics tell me there is at least one person without a PhD who would proceed directly to a 100 percent effective Covid vaccine or treatment single handedly in only a few months using no more than 1 percent of the resources relative to proven successes like Pfizer or Moderna.

Basically having much better aptitude than almost all humans, lacking mainly only equipment and support of an effort. Statistics also say this person will remain unheard of and there is almost no chance there will be any widespread benefit from this persons life's work, no matter if even more unlikely challenges of any kind are more thoroughly overcome.

It's just too tall an order and for best results it might take someone who could carefully select the right 1 percent to work with from all the resources both of these companies have that might be helpful, plus lots of other companies and institutions.

But the person who might be found in that well-resourced kind of position never seems to be able to be the right kind of person.

I predict that scientists will one day discover your theory of government can be leveraged for more widespread benefit to humanity than probably all of your professors' accomplishments combined, if they were the kind not fully respecting your focused effort.

EDIT: added hierarchy-free

Not to mention that the majority of 'big' ideas are published simultaneously by multiple people at different locations.

Big name scientists are usually the ones happy with publishing a half baked idea instead of being universally original.

One need to look at Turing and Post, or Darwin and Wallace for a comparison.

I blame papers being referenced by author name for this mental bias in the sciences.

> ... lesser known scientists such as ..., Maxwell, ...

Maxwell was already a GIANT in Einstein times.

Fair point, Maxwell was one of the most brilliant scientists ever. Definitely on par with Einstein, Newton, and Galileo. It's a shame he died so young, who knows what else he could have discovered during his lifetime.

I suppose if you ask a random sample, however, many people will have heard of Einstein but not Maxwell.

It’s scientists all the way down

I don't think we can make a more competitive system that isn't gained.

My issue is that research is itself very inefficient. We need to bake new research papers into encyclopedias at a much higher rate. We need to automate tons of research so there's no more grad students hanging around beakers. We need to make much better programming tools than python or Cuda, that allow working with high level concepts not shitty arrays.

All that will require a lot of work. We can siphon would-be researches to do that instead. The remaining research will be more productive.

Keeping a few theoretical physicists to develop paradigms to calculate things, but firing anyone who would use those paradigms to calculate things. Yeah, great plan, I'm sure that will be helpful.

Citations are heavily biased towards papers that open questions, and against papers that answer questions. Compare the value of a paper that uses a new technique to answer one question to the value of a paper that uses established techniques to answer a thousand questions. The former will get many citations, but the latter is the one you'd want to read, most likely, if you wanted answers to questions.

> [T]he latter is the one you'd want to read ... if you wanted answers to questions.

I agree with this assessment, but seeking the answers to questions is only part of why I go looking for papers to read: a lot of the time, I am looking for tools / techniques to solve my particular problem, and a paper that offers a novel technique (even if the author(s) have only applied to to a single specific problem) is very enticing in that case. Papers built around a novel technique get a lot of citations because they engender new attempts to problems that were difficult to solve before the technique existed.

And when everybody is suddenly exploring a new technique, testing the boundaries of what the technique can do is very interesting, making negative results significantly more publishable than normal. Lots of people know that $OLD_TECHNIQUE can't solve $PROBLEM_FOO, but the fact that $NEW_TECHNIQUE can't solve it says something quite interesting about the capabilities of the technique.

But surely, it's clear that using the technique is the "terminal value," and inventing the technique is the "instrumental value." The inventor of the technique will be greatly rewarded, but the only reason what they did was valuable is that others will come along to use their technique. It must be kept in mind that the article is suggesting eliminating your role (that of the person trawling the literature for existing techniques to solve their problem), to focus on the invention of new techniques singularly.

> There are various levels of epistemic nihilism one can go, culminating into the "We can't ever know who or what will be successful" so we should fund everyone equally, maximally equalizing funding. I don't agree with this, and will discuss scientific egalitarianism and lotteries in the next part

I enjoyed this a lot. Lots of stimulating ideas and a refreshingly robust way of thinking.

But... being in the "IDK" camp, and being a self hating empiricist, I smarted a little at the "nihilism" quip. I'm absolutely not against these kinds of pursuits though. If I held the pursestrings, I'd give this man (or woman.. who wrote this?) a go.

I just don't think we can get far beyond "lets give this a try" in our knowledge/prediction of what will work here. We're talking about how to fund, and therefore organize, science. There almost certainly isn't one way, and results will likely be different in different between, fields and such.

Game theory also plays a role. Funding methods are legible, and legible criteria (such as citations) quickly become game fodder. The best defence against this might be to throw out criteria regularly. One of the reasons I'm game for what the author suggests is that the "co-funding" model where private interests provide 50% of the cash to prove merit is extremely played out. There was a rationale there too. I'm sure you could support it with "n-hypothesis" and such. That breaks down though, a new rationale emerges. Ideally, whatever mechanism is used tries to consciously avoid citation-seo or somesuch.

I think there are elephants in the room, when it comes to funding systems. We are, almost by definition, constructing a social system... a society almost. One where livelihood, success, prestige and such are at stake. These can't be taken for granted. A concept like "tenure" invents a type of person... a tenured professor. I think we should be thinking and defining these these problems in such terms. "Lets invent X" where X is a type of institution, title, station etc.

Not to mention, the scientific method is itself a culmination of a type of epistemic nihilism. I'm not sure why you'd abandon it at the funding level—in this context, having epistemic values is just called "bias".

Certainly, I'd hope the phrase "We can't ever know who or what will be successful" is a trivially true phrase for a trained scientist. If not, they better read some damn Hume and justify their semantics.

"almost all of them are conformists. They are more or less honest, but they tolerate those who are not honest" - Grigori Perelmen

Basically we need to round up and shoot the conformists and dishonest bunch to Mars when ever the rockets are ready. We already have enough personal data to categorize everyone pretty accurately.

Wouldn't this selection process ironically conform to the main view? And isn't the analysis of personal data yet another chilling effect on non-conformism in the first place?

I was just being flip. The selection process will never happen because the conformists and professionally dishonest will have something to say about it.

I got that, I meant to illustrate the idea that anti-conformism isn't always what it purports to be

> the relative frequency of authors with a given number of publications follows a power law that scales with the square of the number of articles published

Please don't count publications. Counting publications is pretty much the worst way to measure anything. Anybody who discusses counting publications in the furtherance of some goal ought to be required to insert the text "yes, I am counting publications, which is the absolute worst metric available, but I doing so because I could not find any other metric."

If flying on Mr. Epstein's private jet called the Lolita Express down to his private island in the Caribbean called "Pedophile Isle" counts as "elite," then maybe so:



Many young scientists have left the research community after completing their PhD's because they were unable to obtain funding the old-fashioned way, by submitting grant applications that are evaluated through the peer review process, rather than by kowtowing to a sexual predator who was facing charges for the sex-trafficking of minors and was trying to buy his way out of federal prison by "facilitating" donations to Harvard and MIT through his billionaire co-conspirators that include Leon Black, Glenn Dubin, and Les Wexner, in exchange for thank-you notes, as a form of reputation laundering, from co-conspirator and still-president of MIT L. Rafael Reif.

Science is done by many people every day.

But advancing the frontier of science is a different thing. It requires you to be in touch with the latest developments in the field and that does require full time dedication, sometimes resources in the form of assistants, infrastructure...

Very rarely this happens outside academic institutions and well funded laboratories.

Perhaps, I found out about one family who made substantial contribution to science after digging into rabbit hole on names mentioned below.

Roger Y. Tsien, who collaborated with Douglas Prasher for Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2008, came from a family who has already contributed a lot to science. A lot of his family members: his brothers, parents, uncles, extended family members by birth or marriage, became the top on their fields.

Not sure, if it is nature or nurture. No one in my extended family - although our family has produced doctors, etc - has that kind of accomplishment like this family.

I, myself, do not inherit the 'gene', all comes from hard work.


Almost everything in society is built by a few people. The best ideas and processes come from a small minority, the rest of us are just along for the ride

Actually, the rest of us are building things. The ideas and processes are the goals or blueprints that need to be implemented.

Today I watched four guys pour the foundation of a house using very conventional methods. Those four guys weren't along for the ride. They were building the house. True they didn't come up with the method, nor the concrete, but they did build part of the house.

Likewise, the person who made my taco last night might not have invented the taco but she did make it.

Very often the most impressive part of building something isn't the novelty, it's the raw effort.

A very silly article. Newton laws where certainly not "discover" by newton alone. Erasing people from the history and then painting a picture of a lone scientist is an high prospective. There are scientists that work alone and they are rare and NOT the most productive. And I'm talking about Physics and Math here. So no you need to shower communities of scientist before getting result from research. By the way if an hypothetical lone scientist find all the theorems of the world he would still need to spend some time to teach them to others. At the and you still and up funding a large group of top scientist. There is no way around it.

There was a recent post here that suggested that Einstein's first wife was much more involved in doing the science for which he became famous than she was given credit for. They wrote the papers together and published under his name because that was the thing that had some hope of working.

It took two attempts to come up with proof of his hypothesis and these two attempts happened years apart. The first attempt to photograph the sun during a total eclipse occurred during World War I -- known as The Great War at the time -- and one of the teams was arrested. The other failed to get good photos due to bad weather.

Although there are two solar eclipses and two lunar eclipses most years, total eclipses aren't common and occur several years apart. IIRC, there were six teams trying to get photographs the second time and only one (or maybe two) succeeded). There was no war on but weather was again a factor.

Einstein himself was not on any of the teams that took the photos that were seen as proof of his theory.

Scientific breakthroughs are frequently a team effort while one person takes the lion's share of the credit and ends up with the big name recognition. And I sometimes wonder how often it's kind of like Pinky and The Brain where the real genius of the show is actually Pinky but he never gets any credit.

> And I sometimes wonder how often it's kind of like Pinky and The Brain where the real genius of the show is actually Pinky but he never gets any credit.

I found your comment generally thoughtful and interesting, but couldn't let this part stand. The P and the B episodes I remember were all about Pinky messing up Brain's plans. Is this true or do I have a serious case of the Piaget effect??

My recollection is that Pinky saves Brain's ass on a regular basis and it goes completely unnoticed. Yes, he routinely "messes up Brain's plans" but that's in part because Brain's plans are almost always idiotic and Pinky prevents him from doing what he wanted to do, much like as a mom I often interfered with first-born child's attempts to climb on the oven door to check out what I was cooking on the stove top and similar shenanigans.

I'm sure that as a toddler my oldest son thought I was an idiot and a meanie face who spent all my time thwarting his brilliant plans. (I know for a fact he read late in part because when I bought some reading program and would go through the exercises with him, he was looking at me and thinking stuff along the lines of "I already told you ten times that is the letter P. How much repetition do you need to remember it? God!")

Edit: I will add that the lyrics to the theme song include the line "One is a genius, the other's insane" and fail to specify which is which, leaving room for people to either accept the obvious interpretation that Brain is the genius or to go with the less obvious interpretation that Pinky is the real genius and Brain is merely an insane megalomaniac.

See also: https://www.reddit.com/r/FanTheories/comments/11r512/pink_an...

>Imagine that only a handful of scientists at every point in time are able to –if given the time and means–lead revolutions on par with the work of Darwin, Einstein, or Galileo (This is an extreme case admittedly because most of science does not look like this; most of science is more incremental and less memorable).

>>It is possible that my message may be seen as elitist and of interest only to those very few scientists who might be putative members of a twenty - first century Planck Club.

>For example we have Heinrich Kayser who did pioneering work on, and coined the expression, "adsorption". I bet you hadn't heard of him before.

>It might be facetiously asserted that the best way to win a Nobel prize is to study with a past laureate.

>Consider for example what would happen if the already highly cited PCR paper by Mullis et al. (1986) were cited every single time we see "PCR" in a paper.

Was I the only one who laughed at these parts? I am not a scientist, but I did enjoy this writing.

I think using citation count as a metric for scientific importance by definition incorporates a ton of hindsight bias. Less cited papers are sometimes poorly executed research, but often they also just represent dead ends and uninteresting avenues that would've eventually needed to be explored. they don't form the foundation for lots of new research, but collectively they are important for directing things in the right direction. In that sense the citation count undervalues their collective worth. I don't buy the idea that we could get rid of the vast majority of them and the high impact work would be done just the same.

A personal annoyance: why mention Galileo as a leader of scientific breakthrough, when Copernicus’ and/or Kepler’s scientific achievements are greater.

No, it's done by the grad-students, postdocs, and hired research assistants of a small elite.

Anyone thinks this applies to competitive enterprise software business? Or is there large complex systems models where innovation happens (like in science discoveries) at scale.

If some scientists did complete some work comparable to the works "Darwin, Einstein, or Galileo" do you think this would reach everyday folk? Or would industry monetise said discovery, and that might best be done by withholding information or even suppressing it completely, if it challenged vested interests?

No scientist of that caliber would certainly want to publish that kind of research, even if their career depended on it. If they did, it certainly would be ignored by Nature, Science and others, and the newspapers who pick their content from those would have no idea.

I don't mind being downvoted, but it is the reality. What incentives are there for good science to become known to all? There are billions of incentives that say the opposite.

I think some people believe in 'science' like religion, that it will save us from ourselves or something. These people dont see that in science (like religion or any other field of human endeavour) there are controlling interests that have the say.

We receive what is expedient.

Any good science advance can be done only incrementally over previous advances done by others.

Those who are smart enough to contribute to science advances are also aware that their work would have been impossible if others would not have published the results of their work, instead of keeping those for themselves.

Therefore they understand that the best strategy for being able to do further advances is to publish what they have found until now, so that in the future, after receiving new results from others, they will be able to discover new advances.

This is a rational optimal strategy that does not need any supplementary incentives, like being paid for publications or believing in science or whatever.

Of course there are always people who believe that they can cheat in this game and keep secret some useful discoveries.

However, in this case cheating works only if you get out of the game, i.e. if you believe that you have made a discovery so great and definitive that not only keeping it secret can bring profits but also that it no longer needs any improvements, so you will never need to do research again in that field.

You might get some short-term profits by secrecy, but it is quite certain that you will not be able to find any improvements at the same pace as when the discovery would have been published and you would have seen feedback from others trying to use it and enhance it.

The great advances in sciences and technology in the second half of the second millennium were due precisely to the European obsession for quickly publishing any novelty, while China and other Asian countries dominated by Chinese culture stagnated, due to the obsession for secrecy, e.g. that every wise master should reveal his whole knowledge only to a few trusted disciples, possibly only to a single one chosen from them and possibly just at the latest moment possible, on the death bed.

Unfortunately, in the last few decades there was a continuous shift from traditions to publish everything in order to ensure the fastest progress to policies to keep secret as much details as possible, due to what I consider as a false belief, that this secrecy creates a competitive advantage.

What about things simple things like career, peer recognition and intellectual freedom? At lower levels it's called "publish or perish" for reason (not "keep secret or perish"), but if you're really "Newton, Einstein or Darwin" you'll be paid to research whatever you want. And by the way, even for product development there's an institution called "patents" that's intended to encourage publishing.

Absolutely. How do career, peer recognition, and intellectual freedom stack up against up against grants and tenure? If you are honestly interested in areas that off-trend, would you be able to get anywhere?

I think the answer is no. You must sing from the hymnsheet. Apparently science is never settled except that there is no funding if you go off piste.

What's the difference between career and "grants and tenure"?

I was referring to the intellectual side not the remunerative side.

Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact