Science – Don’t Ask What it Can Do for You.

The most important non-scientific book about science that you will ever read is Michael Nielsen's Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science.

It lays out how the current scientific publishing process is a hold over from the 19th century and passionately makes the case for Open Science.  The latter is mostly understood to be synonymous with Open Access, i.e. no more hiding of scientific results in prohibitively expensive journals, especially when public tax funded grants or institutions paid for the research.

But Michael has a more expansive view.  He makes the case that science can be measurably enriched by coming out of the Ivory tower and engaging the public via well designed crowdsourcing efforts such as the Galaxy Zoo.

On this blog, I have written many times about the shortcomings of science media large and small, as well as the unsatisfying status quo in theoretical physics.  And readers may be justified in wondering why this should matter to them. The answer to this is straightforward:  Science is too important for it to be left to the scientists.  Our society is shaped by science and technology, and to the extent that we've all learned about the scientific method, everybody has the capacity to raise valid questions.  Science, as any other major endeavor, benefits from a critical public, and that is why the fairytale science that I wrote about in my last post is a dangerous development.  It lulls the interested observers into believing that they are clearly out of their depth, incapable of even formulating some probing questions.  This can in fact be turned into a criteria for bad science: If a reasonably intelligent and educated person cannot follow up with some questions after a science presentation, it's a pretty good indication that the latter is either very poorly done, or may deal in fairytale science (the only problem with this criteria is that usually everybody considers themselves reasonably intelligent).

The antidote to this pathological development is Open Science as described by Michael Nielsen and Citizen Science. The latter I'll expect to develop no less of an impact on the way we do science as the Open Source movement had on the way we do computing. Never have the means to do quality science been as affordable as today; A simple smartphone is already a pretty close match to the fabled Star Trek tricorder, and can easily be turned into precision instruments. Science labs used to require skilled craftsmen to build scientific rigs, but 3D printers will level the playing field there as well.  This means that experiments that would have required major funding just two decades away are now within the means of high school students.

So, don't ask what science can do for you, but what you can do for science.*

Don_t_ask*In this spirit, I decided to step up this blog's content, and didn't shy away from the expenses to engage in some original reporting.  Last week I took a trip to Canada's high tech wonderland, which happens to be Burnaby, BC just outside Vancouver.  Stay tuned for some upcoming first hand reporting on D-Wave and General Fusion.

12 thoughts on “Science – Don’t Ask What it Can Do for You.

  1. I think the sentiment behind Nielsen’s approach does make sense but would also mention another factor people seem to forget. In the Mathematical Sciences it is not possible to gain legal protections to any innovation, except through copyrights, software patents and the like. This legal disenfranchisement means that the creative mathematician has relatively little economic bargaining power.

    I do not think there is an adequate public discussion of this problem, nor any serious attempt to solve it through entrepreneurial innovation. We know it is a major problem because great mathematicians in history have periodically withheld important research results in order to protect their rights.

    Both Isaac Newton and Carl Friedrich Gauss did this in their time. They hoarded their own results.

    I would think it is quote common today as scientific plagiarism and mis-representation of the provenance of results seems to be rife. Certainly I would give pause to releasing any important discovery in this very uncertain environment. Why should the architect of an important mathematical discovery release it?

    What economic incentives are there to release original mathematical work?

    Some may say the incentives are clear, but I think otherwise. If you publish in the closed literature that Michael Nielsen critiques then you will certainly find little public recognition. Alternatively,you might ignore peer review and simply release results into the general literature. However, that course seems fraught also as the work is then apt to be “re-worked” in the peer review literature for scientific plaudits.

    I think society has made for itself a difficult situation. Mathematical Sciences are distinguished by the fact of a form of creativity where the rewards of sharing seem not to always be there for the creator.

    I guess those not close to mathematical research might say: “So What?”.

    Well, what if those results consisted of a new physical theory?

    What then? Why should anybody who makes major discoveries in this area share them at all?

    It would seem to me that there are no clear answers at this time. There is conceivable commercial advantage for one who has labored hard to simply keep the work secret and exploit it.

    The program of social engagement that Michael Nielsen advocates is admirable but it is unclear what the incentive is to contribute. The social system around science and research seems rather messed up.

    1. You are touching on a broader subject here i.e. how IP should be organized in a highly networked world. Nielsen actually mentions how Newton and other giants of yore withheld results. It was quite common before the publishing practice was established. Now of course we find that some researchers like Robert Tucci can’t even get his recognition when submitting to arxiv.

      Don’t know what the solution is, but my hunch is it will require a creative way to leverage the network.

      1. Yes, I think you are correct about the requirement for creativity. There is clearly a lot going on in the one publishing and collaboration space. The solution I favor is to simply get ahead of the crowd strategically and carve up the important commercial application areas. I think it is possible to protect innovation here through the device of a secure kernel. In most cases you do not need to do this, but legally mathematics is best treated as a “trade secret”. If you tell anybody it is gone. That is what creates the tension.

        However, in a world that runs on code I think there is likely a BSD style license solution. You collaborate on infrastructure and common tools and compete on the “edge factor”. This is how quantum chemists operate already with their menagerie of molecular orbitals and exchange functionals.

        Let’s face it, the big areas are quantum electronics, spin-tronics, superconductors, proteomics and materials science generally (especially band gap engineering).

        This is where the Bell Labs of tomorrow will be born.

        QED may have 12 decimal place accuracy but it is pig of a theory.

        On the other hand, Non-Perturbative QED is a whole different can of Beluga Caviar 🙂

    1. Further to the Tuccister… blogs are definitely part of the solution.

      However, I think there is something else that is missing. In my view, scientific progress follows more or less directly from framing appropriate questions to which we (objectively) do not know the answer.

      For instance…

      How to calculate the anomalous magnetic moment of the electron without regularizing away the infinity?

      Many folks would say…

      This is a non question because everybody knows you cannot.

      Hmmm… I say. Perhaps you never actually tried.

      The point I am making is this…

      Science proceeds by teeing up those questions amenable to present answers.

      Right now, I would say there are many professional Academics asking the wrong questions. The refuse to ask the right questions because they do not believe those questions have present answers.

      Poor fools them.

      What we need to do with public open science is elevate those questions one might ask in a public forum which *already* have well reasoned and verifiable answers.

      Unfortunately, the list of such questions is now *very* extensive and the Academic community continue to fail to ask of themselves those questions to which people already know the answers.

      Instead, the Academic community continue to frame questions which have no discernible answers as a means of avoiding acknowledgment of those answers which are real, present, meaningful and valuable.

      That is what needs to change.

      Robert is correct. Pose those questions in a public place to which you already have the answers and you will make Academic Physics obsolete overnight.

      It has sat on it’s own fat tardy arse for too long doing sweet fat nothing 🙂

  2. Kingsley: re, “Well, what if those results consisted of a new physical theory? What then? Why should anybody who makes major discoveries in this area share them at all?”

    Absolutely. Why should they? Ideas are not intellectual property and are held to be matters of public domain. Copyright only protects the presentation of an idea, and not the idea itself.

    It is clear that journal referees have become as gatekeepers for conventional considerations. Novelty is not tolerated. This is not Science, this is Dogma. Science can only proceed by novelty and innovation.

    It is inappropriate when the vultures expect altruism from their potential feast.

  3. I was not aware that masses of mathematicians were working in the private sector and were worried about leveraging money from their discoveries. Aren’t the vast majority working for publicly funded educational institutions?

    Great article HD. Look forward to the Canada reports

    1. Thanks for the kudos 🙂

      As to the enterprising mathematicians: Many STEM academics who like to make money actually ventured into Finance. I.e. developing these ridiculously complicated risk models to perform complicated derivative and hedging instruments. Given the damage this has caused, a good argument could be made that these money motivated theoreticians should be offered less dangerous ways to derive value form their intellectual prowess.

    2. The comment from FalnObrien is (I think) really interesting. The popular perception may be that most PhD graduates work in Academia. In the more developed economies this is *not* the case. If you take the USA for example, about 75% of PhD’s work in industry.

      If you look at Mathematics it is important to remember that there are actually very few jobs in Academic mathematics and that the subject is extraordinarily over-specialized. The great majority of published Academic mathematics today would have zero commercial use.

      However, Mathematics has always moved forward fastest when in touch with actual real problems from industry. To take just one area, Machine Learning, there have been some very substantial advances in cross-disciplinary mathematics occurring within industry. The same is true of Signal Processing in Engineering. Indeed, I would point out that the IEEE Transactions on Information Theory carried (correct) papers on quantum communication channels as early as 1970. Much of this work is unknown to Academic physicists, even today, who continue to get some aspects of that theory wrong from an operational standpoint (they invent theories that do not describe what anybody actually does or should do).

      We live in a time of great transition. The public believe that the Academy is where “Science” gets done and that the subject is dry, arid and irrelevant. In truth, most of the best science getting done today is in private enterprise. Sure, you will not find people doing string theory working for private companies, but there is a reason for that…

      Much of what Academics work on is junk.

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