Friday, December 01, 2006

Loving Science but Hating Academia

You know what- we don't really learn what science is unless we get lucky and end up learning from a teacher who loves it. I had one such teacher the first year of my Ph.D. and another who guided me through my Ph.D. The early teacher was Ronald Red Owl Hoskins. Had us delving into the philosophy of science, Popper, Kuhn, examining what we knew about "Truth" and whether it existed. His teaching excited me and made me into a "true believer."

The man who guided me through the Ph.D. is Tom Stewart, a scientist and human being par excellence. He speaks little but boy, he personifies the scientific ideal. A keen mind and a no-frills scientist. His integrity truly sets him apart. When I was down about my dissertation research not resulting in a "stop-the-presses" type finding, he was the one who pointed out the true value of any finding, its role in progressing scientific thinking.

But most of academia does not work for the benefit of science. It works to support itself as an institution and a profession. It is not uncommon to see acts of self-glorification in academia. What is worse, it is not hard to find cases of academics trying to undermine and undercut the work of their colleagues. And worst of all, falsification of research.

"Publish or perish!" It is the mantra given to all young researchers. Scientific findings do need to be proclaimed far and wide in order to further science and knowledge. But "publish or perish" also sets up perverse incentives to the detriment of science. For example, the public now believes that you can always find evidence to favor whichever position you prefer- you only have to look!

Science is not meant to work like that. Scientific research depends on the impartiality and integrity of researchers and their tools. Scientific publishing on the other hand does not reward all scientific findings alike. Add in the factor of the variously vested interests of funders (many from the private sector) and we do indeed have a mix that is not the most conducive to true scientific progress in academia.

A recent heart-warming example is that of Grigori (Grisha) Perelman. Here is a guy who has turned down offers to be an institutionalized academic. This man has recently turned down the Fields Medal which is the foremost award in the field of Mathematics. He was chosen for the award for solving an unsolved 100+ year old mathematical problem, the Poincaré conjecture. (You can read more about this by googling it).

Grisha does not work to a schedule. He works on something that interests him, continues working on it till he thinks he is done and then as often as not publishes the result; and then not always in academic journals. No fan-fare, nothing. Can you see this happening in an academic department at a university? Nope, they would want to get maximum mileage out of it - if that is they allowed such a slow person to stay on as long as they have. Of course, I could be dead wrong about all of this, but I doubt it.

Meantime, there is another academic who sees a chance to further himself here because a) Perelman's derivations are hard to follow, b) are not published in an academic journal and c) Perelman is not beating his chest saying he done it. Dr. Yau, a former Fields medalist, gets two of his students (Zhu & Cao) to work double-time on a paper presenting this same result and publishes it in his own journal (conflict of interest anyone?!) after giving the editorial board three days notice by email to comment on the paper. Oh did I mention that neither the paper, its abstract nor any reviews were attached to the email. When one member asked to see the paper, they were told it was not available. Oh the wonders of the modern peer-review process- the paper gets published! Even the title is not the same one as proposed in the earlier e-mail notice.

I will close here with some words from Perelman.
On ethics in academia:
It is not people who break ethical standards who are regarded as aliens. It is people like me who are isolated.

On the Zhu-Cao paper:
It is not clear to me what new contribution did they make. Apparently, Zhu did not quite understand the argument and reworked it.

On Yau:
I can’t say I’m outraged. Other people do worse. Of course, there are many mathematicians who are more or less honest. But almost all of them are conformists. They are more or less honest, but they tolerate those who are not honest.

On his decision to refuse the Fields Medal and leave academia:
As long as I was not conspicuous, I had a choice, Either to make some ugly thing [an issue about academic integrity] or, if I didn’t do this kind of thing, to be treated as a pet. Now, when I become a very conspicuous person, I cannot stay a pet and say nothing. That is why I had to quit... I am not a politician!

[The quotes here come from a Nassar & Gruber article in the New Yorker.]