Peter Shor made a remark on Sabine Hossenfelder’s blog about groupthink in physics:
It’s not just that scientists don’t want to move their butts, although that’s undoubtedly part of it. It’s also that they can’t. In today’s university funding system, you need grants (well, maybe you don’t truly need them once you have tenure, but they’re very nice to have).
So who decides which people get the grants? It’s their peers, who are all working on exactly the same things that everybody is working on. And if you submit a proposal that says “I’m going to go off and work on this crazy idea, and maybe there’s a one in a thousand chance that I’ll discover some of the secrets of the universe, and a 99.9% chance that I’ll come up with bubkes,” you get turned down.
But if a thousand really smart people did this, maybe we’d actually have a chance of making some progress. (Assuming they really did have promising crazy ideas, and weren’t abusing the system. Of course, what would actually happen is that the new system would be abused and we wouldn’t be any better off than we are now.)
So the only advice I have is that more physicists need to not worry about grants, and go hide in their attics and work on new and crazy theories, the way Andrew Wiles worked on Fermat’s Last Theorem.
Let me make an addendum to my previous comment, that I was too modest to put into it. This is roughly how I discovered the quantum factoring algorithm. I didn’t tell anybody I was working on it until I had figured it out. And although it didn’t take years of solitary toil in my attic (the way that Fermat’s Last Theorem did), I thought about it on and off for maybe a year, and worked on it moderately hard for a month or two when I saw that it actually might work.
So, people, go hide in your attics!
It’s true that many great innovations came about from working ‘in the attic:’ Einstein working as a clerk, Shannon developing information theory in secret at Bell Labs, J. S. Bell developing his theorem on his sabbatical, Shor’s work, and many more. While it may be the best move for an individual scientist to do given the current system, it is a suboptimal solution from a societal perspective — and we should not take the status quo as a boundary condition! Here’s my initial response:
Like you, I’d lay the blame on the poor quality of science management we have, not the scientists. The problem is the evident risk-averse strategy being pursued, squashing innovation, combined with unwillingness to take an appropriate amount of responsibility the decision-making process on the direction of research. The solution is to replace some of the present set of bureaucrats with people (such as venture capitalists) who have the experience and temperament to manage high-risk, high-reward endeavors (which is exactly what science is). Doing bootleg research may be the best strategy for individual scientists to pursue innovation given the current climate, but we need to treat the root of the problem, which is the current climate preventing innovation.
My inspiration came from the following article: The ‘feel-good’ horror of late-stage capitalism. Here’s the gist:
In the feel-good feel-bad story, irrefutable proof of an institutional failure is sold as a celebration of individual triumph. And it’s the desperate, cloying attempts to trumpet the latter as a means of obscuring the former that gives these pieces their distinct, acrid aftertaste.
We don’t need higher wages; just have an amazing CEO give you his car! Who cares if you can’t support a family on one job? The fix is simple: Get two more jobs!
Shor’s remarks constitute the same refrain, transposed to a different key. Our society is pushing risk onto individuals, when we should be socializing it, individual success stories to the contrary notwithstanding. We could benefit from a more risk-tolerant approach to science management, to supplement the more ‘business-as-usual’ approach.
I also take issue with Shor’s straw-man version of an alternative to the present system of grant review. Presently the fox is guarding the hen-house, but the solution isn’t to just fling the doors of the coop wide open. Instead, we need independent review from outside physics. Yes, this implies reviewers who aren’t likely to fully grasp the theory, which does create an information asymmetry and the potential for abuse — so it’s important to perform some due-diligence.
However, there will be dead-ends no matter what. Even the brightest of us may disagree about whether an approach will pan out — it’s research after all! The cost of funding a few wacky ideas along with one breakthrough may be worth it compared to the present approach of funding relatively staid approaches that almost certainly won’t result in a breakthrough.
I’m also concerned because the plausibility of claims of groupthink dovetails with the desires of ‘climate skeptics’ who would like to portray the scientific consensus on climate change as merely a result of a liberal echo chamber. To be frank, it’s not too difficult for me to imagine how that could happen, although I think in the case of climate change the evidence is really there.