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Science Revisited

  1. Dec 6, 2006 #1

    Clausius2

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    I'm a grad student, probably in the top5 list of departments in the whole world that best address the discipline of my research, and here is my opinion after 1 year and 3 months of experience.

    My impression about nowadays science is that it is polluted. The good news are that still it is not sinking because some people belonging to the old school knows how to overcome those pollutant agents that are endangering its survivance. The pollution comes from two sources: the money and the people.

    The money because the government and funding institutions are giving free way to those who do research on things that they consider interesting for the world. The money because those institutions don't promote the growing of new generations of scientists (i.e. they don't tailor its projects to grad students). The money because every grad students that comes get their imagination and creativity totally cut to the smallest limit, having to agree with what is written in a proposal already agreed a priori. The money because the advisor cuts the creativity and imagination of the future scientist, making him to have to agree to what is written in a proposal that he didn't write. The money because this shortening on imagination constraints the scientific advance to what a bunch of jerks consider what is advance and what is not. And finally the money because the money is making the science to loose the original spirit that it had half a century ago and before, when people researched even for fun, being happy for doing that, and not worrying too much about how trascendental were their discovers.

    The people because a growing bunch of scientists are too worried about the trascendence and relevance of their studies. The people because the scientist of today don't really want to do science, but appearing on the newspapers and obtaining the applause of all his colleagues. The people because they follow the stream of the jerks and they consider relevant what is not relevant at all. The people because they don't understand that the original sense of science was not to do something relevant when doing research, but enlargering a "dx" (differential of x) the frontier of the human knowledge, even though the "dx" does not seem relevant at first sight. The people because a bunch of scientists of today (most of them) consider all fashioned and kind of ridiculous what was done 50 years ago, they laugh if someone keeps on doing it nowadays, and some of them even consider that a thesis cannot be written and done with a simple PC.

    Too much lack of humbleness is what I am seeing. Too much lack of respect to those old guys that still do their presentations with transparencies, too much lack of respect to those who don't do a large numerical computation or does not choose a cool topic, a topic proposed by the jerks by the way.

    Don't think I am dissapointed, I am glad to be in my spot doing classical things, things that were done 50 years ago, not a cool thing for these days. I am glad not to be running with those who want to appear on the news doing science. I am glad to think that I am in science not for doing something relevant for the world or saving lifes, but because I like to do my little things and I don't hope nobody is going to acknowledge my work at short term. And I am glad to think that Science is not a Business as a bunch of scientists are starting to think after discovering how to make money with patents. I really thing the true science WAS written in base of these feelings some time ago. And I really think that those who doesn't think like that should be working in a company, they would have more chances to appear in the news or being applaused.
     
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  3. Dec 6, 2006 #2

    verty

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    This is pragmatism, my friend. It's only good if it's useful, so it's only good if it's useful to those who pay, and if you disagree, you know where the door is.

    You have to sell your soul to money to benefit. And moreover, people tell you that you should; or that you're stupid not to. My intuition is that if you don't like what you are being told to research, don't research it. However, this advice is probably incredibly naive and bad. You be the judge.
     
  4. Dec 6, 2006 #3

    Clausius2

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    Yeah, it was naive and bad. Moreover the quote above shows how jerks convince the people for saying those kind of things. If it were like so, and you say that to an incoming grad student, I assure to you that 9 out of 10 wouldn't be happy doing research = no future for science. Your sentence represents and summarizes the enormous hole of the ship science, the one that I am complaining about: the constraint of the money, and the arrogance of those who kick you out for thinking that the original spirit was not that. A great one, thanks.
     
  5. Dec 6, 2006 #4

    arildno

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    I basically agree with your sentiment, Clausius2, but:

    As to the money:
    Consider WHO had the money previously?
    To a large extent, it was the SCIENTISTS THEMSELVES, who in their financial independence had the luxury to make science into a gentlemanly pursuit.
    (A typical case is the DeBroglie brothers who had the means to set up their own state-of-the-art laboratory.)

    They didn't need to care about money, they were loaded with it from their families.

    Nowadays, the situation is radically different:
    No longer is science a game for rich men's sons who have the private economy to spend 20 to 30 years on their seminal work.
    (Notice how the monograph tradition has declined in the sciences, now the top-of-the-field publications are comparatively short articles)
    The scientist has to answer to his employer, who has a legitimate claim to ask what HIS money (not the scientist's private means) actually is funding.


    So, what sort of scientists do we want:
    Only a few occasionally brilliant, rich eccentrics or "ordinary", intelligent people who actually has to work for their living, whatever strain upon their imaginations that demand put upon their lives?
     
    Last edited: Dec 6, 2006
  6. Dec 6, 2006 #5

    verty

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    Gee, my post was against pragmatism...
     
  7. Dec 6, 2006 #6

    Gokul43201

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    ...but you forgot to use the <sarcasm> tags!
     
  8. Dec 6, 2006 #7
    Well, do you get full tuition paid for you? If yes, then in many respects grad school is very much your 'job'. You are getting paid to learn and do research. If this were a company, you wouldnt tell your boss what you wanted to work on, they would tell you. For instance, if I get accepted into grad school later on in life, I am fully aware that I won't be able to do 'exactly' what I want to do. I can do something that is in line with some research another professor is doing.

    I'm afraid you have a false idealization of the history of science. For the most part, science was only given status and recognition by the state after it proved its usefulness to the state. I.e., the state simply never 'gave' money to do science for the 'fun of it'.

    Now, Im not arguing with what your saying, but I am pointing out some false idealizations it appears you have.

    Also, is this specific to your school, or do other grad students at different places see this trend?
     
    Last edited: Dec 6, 2006
  9. Dec 6, 2006 #8

    Moonbear

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    That is part of the "people" problem he refers to. Students are starting to expect this just is the way it will be, and don't even try to find a lab where they can do what interests them. You don't learn to be an independent scientist if your mentor never lets you stretch your own wings before you leave the nest. You aren't just doing a job for your mentor, you're supposed to be getting an education out of it in the process.

    I don't know if the grad students notice, because many don't know any other way, but plenty of us faculty see it. In the biomedical sciences, we often run into the problem of trying to justify the clinical relevance of what we're studying, and if you're just starting out studying something completely new, they really don't like the "Give me 10 years and I'll tell you" type answer. How can you know the clinical relevance when you're just starting out trying to find the function of something new? I keep wanting to tell them, "If you don't let people work on some new areas that don't have obvious clinical relevance yet, NOBODY will have anything to build clinical studies off of in the future, it'll just be a lot more of the same old thing. You need to understand the basic science first."

    And, if students aren't allowed to design their own projects, how do they learn to be scientists? If you're just being given work on an existing proposal, and it's not just something to do as a jumping off point to develop your own experiments from, then you're being cheated out of your education. The lab may be highly productive and high profile, but if they aren't teaching you to do the research, and to just be a slave on existing grants, then it's not good mentoring.
     
  10. Dec 6, 2006 #9
    I see what you're saying; but at the same time, where in the real world does anyone anywhere just give you money to run off and do research with little to no end in sight with only the 'promise' at best that something might result?

    Science is expensive. If you can gain something from the investment then I think it's a good gamble. If you are blindly wasting away tax money on things that 'might' work, then you can run out of money very quickly.

    Well; honestly, why should I give you 10 years and a couple million bucks to work on something that might not materialize?

    So much money is already spent on things that do have a definite end in sight that still do not work out.

    I think doing research that has a clear goal and purpose is a good way to train people to be respectful of the real world. No?

    If you are studying something like 'theoretical physics/engineering' then I can see some money going into that kind of thing. But if everyone wanted money on this basis, then I can see problems.
     
  11. Dec 6, 2006 #10

    Gokul43201

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    Actually, everywhere, but it's getting harder and harder. It's called fundamental science, and if short-sighted governments stop funding it, they risk running into intellectual stagnation sooner or later.

    Moonbear, you think it's tough landing a grant in your area...you've gotta try fundamental physics. My boss has to ask the NSF for money to explore the fundamental nature of electron-electron interactions - something that may find use a century or two down the line.

    And when you see people around you having to describe their work using the latest catchwords (nano-blah, qubits, etc.) just to coax the funding agencies into throwing some moolah their way, it's a pretty pathetic sight.
     
    Last edited: Dec 6, 2006
  12. Dec 6, 2006 #11
    Where is 'everywhere'? I would expect that to fall mainly within a few major government labs dedicated to 'out there' research, but not so wide spread in places like industry: unless I am mistaken.

    To be clear, I do not mean not giving funding to something that is cutting edge technology. But I think there is a difference between cutting edge, and (as in your case) a century down the line realization.

    I agree that money should be spent, but I am cautious as to how much is 'enough'. Last semester my thermo professor was talking about having to write proposals to the DOE to win funding for their alternative energy research for HVAC systems. So, everyone wants and needs money. I think the larger portion (but not all) should go to those that can actually provide real result at th end of the day and not a promise on something down the line.
     
  13. Dec 6, 2006 #12

    Clausius2

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    That's the key question man. I honestly think I could answer your question. And I am sure that Moonbear, Gokul and Arildno too. We know the answer and we know why you should give me that, or at least make an effor to understand why. Why do we know the answer?. Because we really know what is it about, what is fundamental research about (good word, gokul). We do know the benefits of the research on basic science, we can feel those benefits as the pillars of theories that we are currently using. We do know that those fundamental pillars were built a while ago, and we do know that in order to keep on building pillars and deviate the trajectory of science from business the things should be different. You cannot feel it because you are not involved in it.

    There is a huuuuuge difference between science and profits. All our current theories were fished as if one would be fishing with dinamite. For instance, the defense department knows that around 99.9% of the current research in defense is not gonna go anywhere. Still they are funding it, in the wrong way, but still they are funding. But they do know that a 0.01% of the current research is gonna produce a wonderful result at short term that will give US the head of the defense technology in some field. Then they pace themselves knowing that another 10% will be useful in the future. As a result a 90% of the money has been "wasted".

    Honestly I don't think this is the best environment for grad students, and I think Moonbear also thinks so. She knows how she has to keep track of a proposal and how she has to kill the inventive of the grad student.

    How was all this thing a couple of centuries ago?. Arildno has already said how. How was all this thing 50 years ago?. I think it was much better than now. Science was not that elitism. They had plenty of money for doing research on basic science. Some of those of that time are professors that are giving me class today, and now they run out of money because there is only money for cool topics. They were grad students, and they felt the freedom of researching on basic things and not being constrained by a ****ing proposal about cool things.
     
  14. Dec 6, 2006 #13

    Clausius2

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    I am gonna add something. I grew up in the university liking basic science, with that I mean physics and mathematical physics. Even though my background is mechanical engineering, I envisaged an incredible field in fluid dynamics. Fluid dynamics is the closest field to mathematical physics in which an engineer can survive and as a matter of fact can do a lot of important things (most of them that are done). I inherited my vision of fluid dynamics from my undergrad advisor, who still tries to do classical fluid dynamics (soon he will have to turn to somewhere for getting money). There is a lot of things, a lot to do in the theoretical fluid dynamics. But the problem is that it is not cool anymore. In the 50's we didn't have those computers. As a result, the best generation of fluid dynamicists ever (cybrus, you have seen the videos in the ME forum, haven't you?). They consolidated the theory, applied new methods coming from applied mathematics to our field. Today classical fluid dynamics is seen as the shelter of those loosers that don't have any money but are resistant to change the topic. The things are going to bionanofluids and computational fluid dynamics. Those two disciplines have a great load of computation and experimental analysis. That leaves the theory and the world of classical mathematical physics indefense against a computer or a natural phenomena that is justified and paced as "untractable" by the current theories. We don't have to think anymore. You go to a conference and people show you a bunch of simulations and cool movies but don't give you any physical explanation. "Showing results" they call it. In an small room, "lejos del mundanal ruido" (as it would be said in spanish to say ****ing away), a couple of people in a room, most of them over 50s, showing a work on asymptotic analysis, a basic stuff. A basic stuff that requires, to my judge, an incredible amount of more brain substance than merely coding a numerical computation or getting a bunch of experimental data. I have always believed that theory is at the top of the pyramid of the science, but now one gets in trouble because it seems rusty and old, out of fashion.
     
    Last edited: Dec 6, 2006
  15. Dec 6, 2006 #14

    0rthodontist

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    I know nothing. But I think the point should be made that in the past, increasingly true the farther back you go, scientists had to be independently wealthy, and that's where they got their freedom from.

    But on the other hand, businesses and governments are always too shortsighted, except those like the DoD that have $$ to burn. There _should_ be more funding on things without immediate payoff. But people have a habit of not thinking very far ahead.

    Scientific research of all kinds needs more funding. If I were dictator, scientific research would be funded by at least a third of the budget, and so long as a researcher is qualified and has a legitimate topic, few questions would be asked.
     
  16. Dec 6, 2006 #15

    Moonbear

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    Because REAL research means we don't know the answers before we start the experiments. It's not product-oriented, and it's naive to think it should or could be. You can't make significant breakthroughs if you're stuck in a rut just taking people's old results and finding applications for them. Fundamental research means exploring things nobody has ever examined.

    And if you KNOW it will work, why waste money repeating what's already known? Again, the point of research is to test hypotheses of what is NOT yet known. I think it's more a waste of money on the things that are so certain they become trivial. You can't advance knowledge that way.

    Because it might, or might result in something even more important than we realized when we started.

    When the person who discovered the estrogen receptor discovered it, people didn't believe him at all. They thought all of estrogen's actions were through modifying enzyme activity. So, he was pursuing something nobody even thought was real, and they scoffed at it. In today's funding climate, something met with that much resistance would never get funded. It was that discovery, which at the time people believed was a wild goose chase, that blossomed into huge advances in medicine. Without that discovery, we wouldn't have been able to target drugs to that receptor, like tamoxifen, to treat breast cancer, we wouldn't know much about how reproductive function in general works. Indeed, it opened up the entire field of study of nuclear receptors.

    http://www-news.uchicago.edu/releases/04/040926.jensen.shtml
     
  17. Dec 6, 2006 #16

    Gokul43201

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    Most all universities, national labs and research facilities, and some small number of industry labs.

    The question is, what's a sensible allocation? It appears to some of us now, that a smaller and smaller share of the pie is going into fundamental science.
     
  18. Dec 6, 2006 #17
    I hear what your saying moonbear, but again that is one example. Is it the case that this happens time and time again, or is it for every one person that makes a discovery, you have ten or twenty that don't. That's going to be big money wasted.

    Also, I do not mean knowing the answers before you start something. But there are times when you have a good indication that an answer is obtainable. This is not the same as a crapshoot.
     
  19. Dec 6, 2006 #18

    Moonbear

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    We can know that AN answer is obtainable...that's part of good experimental design. It doesn't mean THE answer one hopes for will be obtained. The problem we're talking about is that funding agencies practically expect a sure thing, which is very short-sighted and stifles innovation. Most successful scientists I've met began their careers with some false starts. If you don't want to just be redundant with what everyone else is doing, which is not much of a way to build a career, you have to find your own niche and your own line (or two or three) of research to pursue. To do this, you have to take some risks until you find something that pans out.

    The problem right now is that unless you can say, "This will lead to a cure for X," or "This will lead to product Y," people don't want to fund it, even if it's research that is providing fundamental knowledge that someone, one day, could use to cure X or create product Y...or, possibly more importantly, suggest that drug Z will have serious side effects.

    I'm currently working on something very similar to that last scenario. There is a drug in clinical trials to treat a psychiatric disorder, and there is quite a bit of work focusing on a particular receptor that the drug targets relevant to this psychiatric disorder. I pretty much stumbled across this receptor in a completely unexpected area of the brain...one that's important for reproduction. So, I'm working on a very fundamental question...it's in a part of the brain important for reproduction, so is it actually functional in reproduction? If so, in what ways, and under what conditions? If the grants I've applied for get funded, in 5 years, I'll have good answers to those questions (and a few others), but it doesn't mean we'll have a drug on the market, or even in development to fix reproductive problems. Instead, we'll have another piece of a much larger puzzle, along with a potential explanation of why some of the side effects observed with drugs treating this psychiatric disorder look awfully similar to hormonal insufficiencies such as during menopause. If I had found these receptors in this brain area a few years ago, those drugs wouldn't have yet been in clinical trials, and I wouldn't have known about those side effects or that these drugs were even in the pipeline. Fortunately for me, I can argue now that there is clinical relevance due to these drugs being developed, but would it have been any less important to pursue this 5 years ago without knowing these drugs were coming along? What if I had this same data in my hands, and because I couldn't make that connection to clinical relevance, had scrapped the entire project because it couldn't be funded, and then these drugs got scrapped too because they had severe reproductive side effects that could have been avoided if they knew where the drug was reaching to have such side effects, but nobody knew about that because I never did those studies?

    How do you cure disease if nobody is allowed to study the normal system to identify what's different in the disease state in order to target those differences?

    And, yes, most research labs do study fundamental questions, and then we have to put on our salesmen caps to convince the general public who doesn't understand science that what we're doing is important for them.
     
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