Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Iron Law and the bureaucratization of science

Something is not healthy about the current state of scientific research.  This isn't a new realization:
The modest output of major discoveries compared with a century ago, despite the huge increase in the scientific workforce, was the theme of an earlier post on this subject, which you can see here . A relevant extract  from the Magic Universe story on “Discovery” included this paragraph about the use of peer review to resist the funding and publication of novel research.

As a self-employed, independent researcher, the British chemist James Lovelock was able to speak his mind, and explain how the system discourages creativity. ‘Before a scientist can be funded to do a research, and before he can publish the results of his work, it must be examined and approved by an anonymous group of so-called peers. This inquisition can’t hang or burn heretics yet, but it can deny them the ability to publish their research, or to receive grants to pay for it. It has the full power to destroy the career of any scientist who rebels.’

Lovelock made those remarks in a lecture in 1989, but the situation remains grim. This month the life sciences magazine The Scientist has interesting articles on peer review.

One, entitled “Breakthroughs from the Second Tier”, describes five “high-impact” papers that should have been published in more prestigious journals than they were. You can see it here
I can't seem to find and data about the number of scientists working today, vs. the number a century ago.  I can't even find decent proxy data for this - say the number of scientific articles published in 2010 vs. the number published in 1910.  But we can all agree that there has been a vast increase in the number of working scientists and the number of published articles (which may be up to 50 Million by now).

And yet we are not seeing any obvious acceleration in the pace of scientific discovery.  Nigel Calder again:

While the modern advances are all impressive, are they really more impressive than those from a century ago?  Especially when you adjust for the army of scientists at work today - perhaps a thousand times as many as at the dawn of the 20th Century - the question becomes why has science slowed down?

Hal Lewis hinted at the rationale in his spectacular resignation letter to the president of the American Physical Society:
I do feel the need to add one note, and this is conjecture, since it is always risky to discuss other people’s motives. This scheming at APS HQ is so bizarre that there cannot be a simple explanation for it. Some have held that the physicists of today are not as smart as they used to be, but I don’t think that is an issue. I think it is the money, exactly what Eisenhower warned about a half-century ago. There are indeed trillions of dollars involved, to say nothing of the fame and glory (and frequent trips to exotic islands) that go with being a member of the club. Your own Physics Department (of which you are chairman) would lose millions a year if the global warming bubble burst. When Penn State absolved Mike Mann of wrongdoing, and the University of East Anglia did the same for Phil Jones, they cannot have been unaware of the financial penalty for doing otherwise.
My emphasis.  Lewis is no crank, and indeed is one of the Elder Statesmen of Physics, having been a member of the American Physical Society for 67 years.  He says "follow the money".

The billions of taxpayer dollars being spent on scientific research do not seem to be accelerating the advance of scientific discovery.  Well, not obviously, in any case.  However, they do appear to be stunningly successful in creating and nourishing a scientific bureaucracy (as Lewis points out).  Bureaucracies have particular well understood characteristics, most interesting of which is Pournelle's Iron Law:
Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy states that in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself. Examples in education would be teachers who work and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representative who work to protect any teacher including the most incompetent. The Iron Law states that in all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions.
Think of the Iron Law, and a representative of each class of people.  Wilhelm Röntgen discovered X-Rays (see the chart above), one of the great scientific advances of the 1890s.  Curtis G. Callan, Jr. of Princeton University is President of the American Physical Society.  Who does the Iron Law predict will gain control of the funding?

I can't believe that scientists today are less brilliant than Röntgen.  With so many more of them working today, something must explain the lack of expected progress.  The Iron Law does just that.  Consider all the potential topics that a brilliant young physicist might choose from.  Some of these might threaten Dr. Callan's position and funding.  The Iron Law predicts that the bureaucracy will respond to stifle this threatening research. 

So do we see this in action?  We do indeed:
Regardless of this complete demonstration of unanimity of outlook and commitment by ACS executives and leadership to AGW doctrine and disregard for the scientific method, many of us felt we could effect change within the organization. One member, Peter Bonk, took it upon himself to articulate the disparity between the ACS official Policy Statement regarding AGW and scientific reality titled:

Regarding the American Chemical Society Public Policy Statement On Climate Change:
An Open Letter to Board of Directors of the American Chemical Society
After Peter got 150 members to sign the petition, a commitment from Rudy Baum that the letter would be published in C&E News, and met with you, Rudy and others in Washington DC to discuss this matter, you all went back on your word and refused to publish the letter. The validity of 25 signatures was questioned as a cover for this reversal. No documentation was ever provided to support this claim despite repeated attempts to obtain such by Mr. Bonk.
This is from Steven J. Welcenbach's equally spectacular resignation letter to the president of the American Chemical Society.  Unlike Lewis, Welcenbach wasn't an Elder Statesman; rather, his complaint was the suppression of views dangerous to the scientific establishment.  It's not the first time we've heard this complaint, either - Dr. Phil Jones' notorious ClimateGate email indicts the whole IPCC process:
I can't see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report. Kevin and I will keep them out somehow — even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!
As a scientist, you can work towards the advancement of human knowledge, or you can work for the advancement of your department - grant funding.  You'd think that ideally we'd like a 100% overlap of those two groups.  In fact, that's exactly what we do have.

And that's what's holding back scientific progress.  The two groups align based on the exercise of raw power by the establishment: acceptance of papers by peer review panels, the issuance of grant funding, the granting of tenure.  Stray too far from the mainstream - and make yourself too much of a threat to the current Eminences Grise - and you'll find yourself cut out of all three.

The bureaucracy protects itself.  That's why you see it considered to be "normal" that data, code, and methods are not required to be published.  That's why you see that dissenting views are not just denounced, but disappeared.  And that's why you see the pace of scientific progress spinning down.

A year ago I posted an anonymous comment left at this post:
Someone left an anonymous comment to my post about Global Warming and the canals of Mars. I'm reproducing it here in full:
I am a scientist, in the alternative energy field. Every conference I go to, people are afraid to speak about AGW - except in their papers and presentations, which invariably use AGW as justification for their research.

Nobody believes in it, everybody knows it's a lie, but that's where all the money is coming from. If a scientist publishes a paper that doesn't affirm AGW, not only is that paper less likely to get published but any other future papers are in question as well. And he can forget about grants, forever.

Who controls the textbooks owns the next generation, and who controls the science funding gets to dictate what "science" says.
I don't find this at all surprising. While you usually have to take anonymous comments with a grain of salt, if the commenter actually is a scientist, he (or she) certainly would have strong motivation to remain anonymous.
Lewis' complaint with the APS bureaucracy was precisely the same as Welcenbach's complaint with the ACS bureaucracy.  Not similar; exactly the same.  Both were the reactions of scientists sickened with the results of the Iron Law.  I'll end with Lewis, because he sums up the feelings of many of us:
It is of course, the global warming scam, with the (literally) trillions of dollars driving it, that has corrupted so many scientists, and has carried APS before it like a rogue wave. It is the greatest and most successful pseudoscientific fraud I have seen in my long life as a physicist. Anyone who has the faintest doubt that this is so should force himself to read the ClimateGate documents, which lay it bare. (Montford’s book organizes the facts very well.) I don’t believe that any real physicist, nay scientist, can read that stuff without revulsion. I would almost make that revulsion a definition of the word scientist.
The ancient Romans had a saying: Pecunia non olet.  Money doesn't stink.  The problem is that when the terrible need for grant money shuts off new scientific advances, we - and our children and grandchildren - suffer.  That stinks.


Stranger said...

A friend "in the trade" tells me most of his colleagues are little more than "grant grubbers," whose goal is not scientific advancement but a higher personal standard of living.

Of course, the hard sciences are in no way peculiar. I know a number of challenging findings in my original field that are being suppressed because they would not please those in charge of grants.

Those who appropriate funding for grants do so under the impression that it will speed scientific research. Observation shows grants tend to halt progress in most fields.


cth said...

Perhaps the lack of accelerated process is because science has got much harder because all the low hanging fruit has been taken.

Mayberry said...

Working with "scientists" myself, I can confirm Stranger's observations. "Scientists" are dependent on grant money to carry out their "research", and more often than not, said research is tweaked to reflect the interest of the grantor. "Science" is not to be trusted. ESPECIALLY government sponsored "science", which is all politically motivated...

BS Footprint said...

I agree that some of this may be due to the 'low hanging fruit' having already been plucked, but OTOH we have much better tools these days, don't we?

I admire scientists and science but I hardly think that they are immune to social pressure to conform. The AGW politickin' provides ample proof.

Here are a couple more things for your edification, tangentially related but might help understand what's going on:

The Thermocline of Truth by Bruce Webster

Dunning–Kruger effect - read "Unskilled and Unaware" if you can find the original PDF. Here's an article about it.

BS Footprint said...

Oh, and I forgot to suggest: Perhaps Atlas is shrugging, just a bit? :D

wolfwalker said...

Borepatch, I'll be honest: I laughed out loud when I saw someone quoting James Lovelock on what's wrong with science. Lovelock hasn't done any serious science since he ran off into la-la land with the "Gaia hypothesis," forty years ago. He's also a wacko on AGW, and I suspect that the context of his quoted 1989 comment was about global warming, which he believes in with all his heart, but was ridiculed by conventional scientists until only a few years before that.

This problem of new or groundbreaking science being rejected by 'the establishment' has been with us for centuries. It hasn't gotten any worse in recent years. Science has slowed down in recent years for at least three reasons that I can think of:

1) yes, all the 'low hanging fruit' has been picked. A hundred years ago we still were working out the basic rules for the Universe. Today, the basics are all well known (we think) and there are far fewer blank places on the map to fill in.

2) you need a lot more equipment to do cutting-edge research now. A hundred years ago Marie Curie could work on purifying pitchblende in her backyard shed; today, you need something like the Large Hadron Collider to explore the edges of physics.

3) wannabe scientists have to spend a lot more time in school, and then they have to worry about paying off the cost of that school. Albert Einstein was largely self-taught, and it cost him little more than living expenses. Today you need four years of college for a bachelor's degree, two of grad school for a master's degree, and two or three more for a doctorate. And you wind up with hundreds of thousands in student loans to pay off.

sofa said...

yet another symptom of poor ethics.

the end of reason, and the end of law. the end of 'the social contract'.

Paul, Dammit! said...

Wolfwalker beat me to the punch. I'm generally something of a contrarian, but, that aside, there is one metric that is useful in judging the rate of scientific advancement: the overall volume of the body of knowledge of the earth, physical and life sciences. When you measure the amount of time it takes in years for the body of knowledge to double, we're left with an asymptotic curve! The doubling time has decreased from an estimated 75 years in the days of Newton, to 10 years in the days of Einstein, to 6 months in 1990. The body of knowledge is exploding while the focus is contracting.

One other, interesting anecdotal shift that my old academic advisor from my undergrad days talked about recently: when I was one of his students 15 years ago, the biology department at my old university had a 60/40 split among students interested in organismal vs. cellular-level biology. Today the split is 10/90.

I believe that the biotech field skews many calculations of productivity amongst research scientists- cutting edge biotech work isn't published with a mind to repeatability- intellectual ownership of results is big business. Who can say whether that affects the rate at which projectmanagement-level scientists publish?

Paul, Dammit! said...

Crap- forgot to mention that 1990 was the last time I saw this figure- a great course on bioethics that is sadly no longer required for undergraduates in most schools.

Bruce Charlton said...

I tried to summarize my thoughts on the death of science here:

William Newman said...

If declining rate of great breakthroughs is primarily caused by dysfunctional institutions, then why do we have so few great breakthroughs from amateur and semi-pro researchers? Around the 1890s period that you chose to compare with today, outsiders at the level of Mendel and Einstein came along every 2 decades or so. It seems to me that today we have many more outsiders with adequate qualifications and resources to do research. And I don't see any good mechanisms for the institutions to be keeping outsider breakthroughs hidden. So if we are not getting many more outsider breakthroughs than they got in the 1890s, it seems like suggestive evidence that the slowdown is not just a symptom of bad institutions, but a symptom of something in the broader environment, e.g., today's fruit really not hanging as low as in ca. 1890.