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Science and Technology

Entry 1101, on 2009-10-16 at 21:11:22 (Rating 3, Science)

I have read a few opinions and entered into a few debates over the topic of funding for basic scientific research. By "basic" research I mean the sort of stuff which seems to have no real benefit, and what some people call "blue skies" research. Many people don't want to see this sort of thing funded because there is no obvious payback or financial benefit.

They are wrong in many ways. First, its impossible to tell what will be useful in the long term and what won't, so refusing to invest in research with no immediate benefit could easily result in important discoveries never being made. Second, science is a cumulative thing and many practical discoveries rely on the less obviously useful ones being made already. And third, who has the right to hold up science, even if it could be proved there would never be a benefit?

Some people answer the last point by saying that the government and other funding authorities who represent the taxpayers and shareholders who are the ultimate providers of funds have that right. Again, I think they are wrong. Science deserves to have a certain portion of its funding available for the type of research that experts in scientific fields want to do, even if no one can see any financial benefit in that. It should be enough that science gives us what it does without having to justify itself to politicians and managers.

People should also understand that there is a difference between science and technology. I'm a technologist myself and work in a university with many scientists (as well as having an amateur interest in science) and the two have different aims even though they very much rely on each other.

I think of technology as applied science although the distinction is a bit imprecise because technology doesn't have to come from science. I would like to see more "blue skies" work being done in technology as well as science. Google gives its employees a portion of their paid time to work on projects of their choice and it does produce results. Unfortunately most other companies are too focussed on simplistic measures of performance and miss out on that sort of opportunity.

We really need to get out of the capitalist, management-driven mindset or we will be condemned to mediocrity forever. Very little of any value ever arose from a tightly managed, commercially oriented environment. Almost all managers (in my experience) concentrate on taking the easy path because they have to justify themselves to managers further up the hierarchy. Its just too hard for them to try to do anything better than the way it has always been done.

I would also say (perhaps somewhat cynically and perhaps a bit unfairly in some cases) that managers are just naturally mediocre, unimaginative, self-centered people otherwise why would they want to get into management in the first place?

So I think we need to throw piles of cash at people working in the areas of science and technology and just let them do what they think could be interesting. Forget about the grant applications, forget about the management reports, and forget about the formal reporting of project progress. Just wait and see what happens. I suspect the results would be far greater than any micro-managed project would ever get.

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Comment 1 (2539) by Donald Brown on 2009-10-17 at 03:02:46:

If scientists were a unique race of beings with the sole motivating focus being science, I'd agree.

But since scientists come from the human race, while there might be some interesting things that came from the "throw piles of cash" strategy...much of the money would find its way into individual's pockets, or wasted on "experiments" like "is a vegas vacation better than a florida one". Can you point to ANY situation where huge sums of money have been given away with weak to no oversight where most of it wasn't spent on things other than what it's inteded.

And like it or not...those piles of cash don't appear magically. They come from people who have to work hard, who actually have to please bosses or customers to make it so the government can tax it.

If you have enough faith in scientists to trust that giving them money with no goal, no proven direction (that's different from "practical use", but a reason to show that there's something interesting here to check out), I encourage you to do so. But if you're going to take money from me at gunpoint (which is what it comes down to if one doesn't want to give their money to the government), well, I'm going to want to make sure it isn't wasted.

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Comment 2 (2540) by OJB on 2009-10-17 at 09:55:57:

I agree that not all scientists are motivated by the real goals of science or can be completely trusted but most can. Managers having too much control over the majority to prevent dishonest behaviour from the minority is not a good strategy.

I can't point to any cases where vast sums haven't been wasted but I can't think of any where they have either, maybe because no one has ever tried this strategy (except for Google).

Piles of cash appear magically for all sorts of reasons: financial bail-outs of banks for example. I'm just saying let's stop wasting them on useless parasites like bankers and do something useful for a change.

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Comment 3 (2541) by Donald Brown on 2009-10-18 at 03:26:41:

The bailouts were deemed necessary not because they love bankers, but people depend on them to run businesses, and if they'd gone under, everyone would have been immediately affected. Not saying it was the best solution and definitely not handled the best, but it's not "useless"

and I'm not talking about science. I'm talking about any case where they've taken big piles of money. Military - hammers for tens of thousands of dollars. Bank bailout - huge bonuses for those who caused that mess. War on drugs. War on poverty. (And for different piles of cash...look at what happens to so many people who hit it rich in sports or entertainment.) And no, most scientists can be no more trusted than most cops or more bankers or most military suppliers, not because they're evil, but because they're human.

The grant-writing process also is part of the scientific process. Identifying what it is that they'll be exploring, setting forth methods of investigation.

Should there be more money for science, even pure research? Yes. But remove the management, and most of that money will be wasted instead of the scientific research we both want.

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Comment 4 (2542) by OJB on 2009-10-18 at 17:09:53:

So after the bail-out how are we better off? What has that investment given us? Absolutely nothing. But that is irrelevant because I used it to show that "piles of cash" are easy to find, its just a matter of what they are being used for.

I think you're wrong about the trust thing. Different groups are made up of people with different psychological profiles so some professions are just inherently more trustworthy than others. Also there are very strong checking mechanisms built into science. They aren't perfect but I think they're better than most others.

No grant writing isn't science, its accounting. The methodology is explained fully in the scientific paper. Grant writing is just a waste of talented peoples' time and a very poor outcome for the people who pay the salaries of the scientists.

You say management prevents waste and that's your opinion. I disagree. In my opinion modern management is the cause of most of the waste we currently have. We need more management but less managers (preferably none).

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