What’s wrong with academia as it exists today?
[T]he results of this policy are largely hidden, since they can be measured only by what does not happen. No one keeps track of whether research programs denied funding by NSF or NIH are less productive of discoveries or inventions than those that are funded. No one analyzes the efficiency of the system. We assume it works because many people publish many papers and some people manage to make some discoveries.
Robert Root-Bernstein via Jose Luis Ricon
I was recently talking to a postdoc in biology and asked him what he thinks about the common view in Silicon Valley that academia is completely broken. He told me that of course this is what Silicon Valley people would think and that this is totally wrong. Yes, he said, academia has its share of problems, but it does give many brilliant people the opportunity to do incredible research and there are ways to work around many of the apparent constraints of academia if you try hard enough. On the whole, he said, academia is mostly working.
In the process of telling me all of this, it transpired that:
- His grad school PI was forced to close down their lab in their late 40s despite having tenure
- His first postdoc PI was unable to get funding for the questions that really interested them and had to switch to a less interesting but “hotter” area of research with more NIH funding
- He himself in his mid-30s is doing a second postdoc, and is working on a project he considers incremental because he will be unable to find a job if he doesn’t amass enough publications to be hired as an assistant professor and if he was not constrained by this, he would’ve been researching a totally different thing
Something like this happened to me several times in conversations with biologists over the years, and this is the thing that personally convinces me the most that there are very serious problems in academia.
And while academia does provide a unique opportunity to be at least sort of free and to pursue fundamental research you believe in, it is very rigid and unaccepting of deviation from being a certain kind of model researcher, who is original but not too heretical (to get funded by peer review committees); ambitious but not idealistic (to publish a lot in certain journals); and works hard but is not unbalanced in their personality traits (to simultaneously manage the lab, hire well, and keep up with the funding landscape, in addition to doing research).
But if, for example, you just want to keep doing research full-time, while having a normal life and a family, there’s literally no established career path for you in the up-or-out management-consulting-like structure of academia. Or, conversely, there’s simply no way for you to start building a lab that will be dedicated to pursuing your research program without waiting until you’re around 30 (in the best case scenario) or 35 or 40.
Take an example of George Church: George Church is a scientist at Harvard who was one of the pioneers of gene sequencing and is probably the most famous synthetic biologist alive.
His adoptive father was a doctor. He went to a fancy high school, where he started dabbling in science, and then to Duke University, where he did research throughout undergrad. He got admitted to grad school. He had everything going for him (well… except dyslexia and narcolepsy).
While in grad school, Church was working 105 hours a week in the lab and publishing papers… And then Duke kicked him out, serving Church this letter. The reason? He stopped going to a course that he literally already took during undergrad, flunked it, and Duke’s bureaucrats decided to kick him out. Fortunately for Church, he re-applied to Harvard and Harvard re-admitted him. And then of course he became one of the most accomplished scientists of our time.
The professors Church worked with for more than 5 years at Duke could not prevent Duke’s bureaucrats from kicking him out. Duke obviously didn’t care about any of the science the 20 year old Church was doing – even though by that time he was basically a mature scientist determining his own research program – they probably thought he was just a talented but lazy and arrogant grad student who needed to be taught a lesson. Church was clearly brilliant, accomplished, had everything going for him, and still nothing could be done to prevent him from getting kicked out of grad school.
Most of all, I want our scientific institutions to empower young Churches, rather than try to ruin their lives.
So, New Science will create better incentive structures for basic science?
While incentives and formal structures are important, if you think about it, firms, for example, tend to be structured pretty similarly. They all have employees, managers, managers of managers, HR departments, and so on. And if we take two firms with identical organizational and incentive structures that work on the same things, some of them will become Stripe and Facebook and some of them will get on the TV show The Profit (MR). The difference is in people, in culture, in details that are not clearly legible and that resist being written down and codified explicitly, in different enforcement of the same rules. Similar things can be said about countries. You can copy all of the US’s laws and structures of government and this will absolutely not lead to your country’s GDP per capita suddenly (or ever) jumping to $60k/year. Similar things can be said about research organizations.
I noted a similar pattern of illegibility when writing about the NIH in How Life Sciences Actually Work: looking at the titles of research proposals that get funded and at people who get funded is informative — but only to an extent — and you’ll never learn just by looking at NIH’s procedures and statistical data on grant-making, for example, that a significant portion of those grants is written by grad students and postdocs with their PI’s names stamped on them or that the projects actually pursued with the grant money differ quite a lot from what the project states nominally, in a sort of a don’t-ask-don’t-tell dynamic between the NIH and the scientists, allowing them to work on things the NIH wouldn’t officially fund.
In my mind, all of this points to primacy of culture over structure and to primacy of studying the illegible over legible, leading, in turn, to my reluctance to endorse some grand ‘seeing like a state’ plan for rebuilding scientific institutions. I used to obsess over mechanism design and incentive structures but I’ve come to believe that we are Bob-Taylor-constrained much more than we are the-ideal-organizational-and-incentive-structure-for-a-basic-research-institution-constrained. And even though I believe there are clear structural improvements to be made – like letting really talented people without PhDs start their own labs – New Science is unlikely to be trying to carry out one single plan, like introducing UBI for scientists, abolishing academic journals, and returning academics to their natural Rousseau’s noble savage-like state or anything of this sort.
Instead, I believe that the most promising way to achieve large-scale improvement in the way basic scientific research is organized is to start small, help individual scientists, and to make small steps towards a much better world.
HHMI Janelia serves as an instructive example to the points I made above. It’s an independent research institute that made very significant contributions to biology in less than 20 years since its opening in 2006, enabled solely by philanthropic funding and explicitly modeled on Bell Labs and Cambridge’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology. Yet, while Janelia has become one of the world’s premier research institutions and serves as an important proof-of-concept, despite explicitly being designed and structured to be something of a Bell Labs of biology, in less than 20 years it seems to have become, perhaps a bit unusual, but mostly an outgrowth of the established academia, tightly integrated with the rest of the system. One part of an explanation for why this happened is that people working in Janelia are scientists who came from academia and who expect to return to academia after just a few years, meaning that, in the end, their accomplishments at Janelia are evaluated not by those trying to do something differently, but by those deeply within established institutions.
How will New Science avoid being culturally dominated by academia?
New Science aims to pursue projects that by their nature can be orthogonal to the culture and to the incentive structures of academia.
For example, the summer fellowship will:
- Target scientists early in their career, when the way they think about science has not yet been completely transformed by their life in academia
- Be short enough so that the cost of doing something very different from what academia expects has strictly limited downside
- Enable participants to learn a ton and to get to know other super smart young researchers and aligned mentors, thus helping them in the long-term regardless of the future path they choose
Longer-term projects will select heavily for deep interest in pushing the frontier of basic science as well as a certain amount of skepticism towards the way science is organized today, thus avoiding having to deal with people thinking about the contents of their traditional academic CV all the time.