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Storming the Ivory Tower

Understanding the origins of life, the causes of cancer, the structure of the brain, quantum gravity... just the sort of everyday challenges that keep scientists working late into the night. But does the way science is organised affect the rate of progress? Does it inhibit change and stifle innovation? Are we even asking the right questions and setting the right research agendas? At a time when business has learned how to flatten its hierarchies to respond to new ideas and manage change better, have the universities become more bureaucratic and hierarchical? What would democracy took like in the lab? Theoretical physicist Lee Smolin has more questions than answers...

I WOULD like to raise some questions about how we do science. I don't know the answers, but what worries me is that when I discuss them with colleagues I get the sense that no one does. It appears that in the past years everyone but us academics has given a lot of thought to how their workplaces are organised. So perhaps it would be worthwhile for scientists to start talking about how we govern our communities and universities. The following is then offered as a conversation starter. Universities are fundamental to the project of democracy because they are the main home of intellectuals who examine society and reflect on the possibilities for change. As such, they are responsible for educating an increasing number of our citizens, and, ideally, instructing them in the habits of reflection, self-criticism and openness to others that are essential for participation in a modern democracy.
It's odd, then, that universities themselves are not terribly democratic in their governance, and are quite slow to change. Indeed, quite a few academics believe that the existing structure is the one to best fulfil the mission of the university, and claim that to best serve the democracies that support them, universities themselves should not be very democratic. I do not know whether they are right or wrong, but here are some questions we could ask.
First of all, how did the present organisation of our universities arise? The modern university evolved from schools of theology. These were designed to perpetuate old knowledge and to promote the cultivation of wisdom on ancient questions. Is this really the best setting for science, which aims to discover new knowledge and to promote new questions?
Many of the institutions of modern society-business, industry, government agencies-have evolved dramatically in recent decades. Indeed, there are whole professions devoted to debating, advising and managing change in the business and government world. Even military men and women are nowadays trained to consider issues of management, organisation and decision-making, as well as the relationship between leaders and those they lead. Many of the people who work on organisational change teach at universities, yet very little discussion and reflection about structure and organisation has been aimed at the universities themselves. Is this good or bad?
Businesses have been eliminating as many levels of management as they can, opening up and flattening their organisations so they can capitalise quickly on new ideas, technologies and products. Universities appear to have been going in the opposite direction. Where once there was a department head or dean, now there are often several suites of offices (usually nicer than those of the faculty) filled with associate and assistant heads and deans, each of whom will generally have secretaries and assistants.
One consequence has been that those who make decisions in universities spend an increasing proportion of their time talking to other administrators rather than to the teachers, researchers and students whom their decisions affect. Worse, they became answerable to other administrators rather than to those working to fulfil the mission of the organisation. These are exactly the trends that modern business has sought to eliminate because they make an organisation resistant to change. Shouldn't the universities be doing the same?
Many scientists believe deeply in the hierarchical organisation of their communities. There seems to be good reason to have a probationary period, after which successful scientists gain the intellectual freedom that tenure gives. But does this imply that scientists as a community cannot be democratic?

'Shouldn't people who think for themselves be chosen for the best jobs?'

While there is obviously an important role for the kind of wisdom that requires decades of experience to acquire, is concentrating power in the hands of the more senior scientists best for science and scientists? Most big decisions in the scientific community involve predicting the significance of research a person has yet to produce. It is easy to recognise success, but university positions, tenure and research grants are not prizes. they are what enables people to do science. So the key question when hiring or funding a scientist is what will he or she produce.
Most new ideas and new research programmes are initiated by younger scientists, typically in the first decade of their career. But almost all the power in the scientific community is in the hands of senior scientists in the last decade or two of their career. Might this hold back scientific progress?
One result of the present hierarchical structure is that it is mainly older scientists who determine the distribution of resources, both between different fields and between different approaches within a given field. As a result, funding decisions often reflect academic politics rather than objective and open-minded evaluations of scientific merit. Another consequence is that the distribution of funding often fails to reflect the priorities of younger scientists. Sometimes a very popular field will have much less funding than one that leaves the best young scientists cold. This places economic pressure on young scientists to go along with the research agendas of older generations of scientists.
So is science hobbled by the fact that the scientists with the most energy, enthusiasm, openness and flexibility-who are therefore most in touch with new ideas and developments-have the least power when it comes to the distribution of resources?
If the older scientists are in charge, it follows that science cannot progress so quickly that those near the end of their careers do not understand the work done by the postdocs. This suggests that theories and techniques typically remain in use for around 40 to 50 years, and that only over longer timescales does science change so radically that whole new languages and techniques are invented. Does this imply that science might progress faster at least some of the time if it were more democratic, so that scientists at all stages of their careers had an equal say in decisions affecting appointments, funding and distribution of resources?
Is there any evidence to support the assumption that scientists become better at predicting the significance of their colleagues' work as they get older? Yes,experience clearly plays a part and many people do acquire wisdom with age. At the same time, many a young academic will know the work of a job candidate better than their older colleagues.
Any modern management consultant will tell you that people at different levels of a hierarchy have very different views of how that organisation works, and sometimes even on who is doing the key work on which everyone's success depends. They will say that the healthiest organisation is one which makes decisions based on input from people at all levels. When I, as a professor, have insisted that my department or research centre is not very hierarchical, the consultants have countered that how hierarchical an organisation is and how open those at the top are to the views of people below them are precisely the things that are perceived differently up and down the hierarchy. How well do we professors really do in seeking the views of our younger colleagues? How often might we have made an ultimately better, if riskier, appointment if our younger colleagues had participated as equals?
Of course, the mixture of hierarchy and democracy varies between countries. In many universities in the US and Canada, department chairs are elected, and hiring and promoting staff requires the vote of the whole department. In Britain, heads are appointed and hiring is done by committees of external senior scientists. In some institutes in Italy and France, the director of the institute and all the directors of groups are elected by the staff. German institutes are run by directors appointed by external committees who alone hold the power for further appointments.
What is most striking is that the scientists in each country are often convinced that their system is the only rational one, and that the quality of the science they do is a consequence of the system they use. In Britain, for example, there are sincere and thoughtful people who are convinced that it would be a disaster to allow anyone to participate in the appointment of anyone of equal or higher rank to them, while in Italy and France equally thoughtful people believe the quality of the science done at their institutes would decrease rapidly if directors were appointed rather than elected. But has anyone done any research into the actual consequences of these different systems?
It must also be emphasised that science is not a pure meritocracy. The quality, boldness and ambition of a young scientist's work are not all that determine their career success. Also important are the popularity of the area they work in and their approach, the "pedigree" of their education and training, and the influence and power of their supervisors and mentors. Good or bad, this undoubtedly has some deleterious effects. [No doubt whether they are good at "mixing" or whether they are "liked" or popular themselves makes a difference too - but that's not rational is it? It shouldn't matter - should it? -LB]
Chief among them is the cynicism generated when young scientists see that quality and originality are not always rewarded as highly as conformity to the research programmes of powerful elders. Science itself may lose out when young people of unusual foresight and courage who choose to invent and work on their own research are unable to obtain good jobs, while merely competent people in popular areas-those favoured by powerful, older scientists-advance easily.
If we really believe that science should be a meritocracy, and that scientific progress depends on young people who think for themselves and introduce new ideas rather than work on the ideas of their elders, shouldn't they be the ones who are chosen for the really good jobs?
I once asked a venture capitalist how people in that business decided the ideal level of risk to take on. He replied that experience told them that long-term return are maximised when 10 per cent of the new businesses they support succeed. In my field, the proportion of papers that represent real progress is certainly at best 10 per cent. But we write and evaluate grant applications as if the good people can guarantee almost 100 per cent success. This means that we successful scientists do achieve close to 100 per cent success-but for projects that are generally less ambitious and risky than we dreamed about as graduate students.
While some of this represents the wisdom that science is a craft where success is often incremental and little steps that succeed an as necessary as bold ventures, we cannot delude ourselves that this is the whole story. More often than we care to admit, many years of incremental steps lead either to a dead end or to knowledge that turns out to be only incidental. If we could be more honest about the risks with ourselves and those who back us financially, could we make the science we attempt bolder and more ambitious? By taking more risks in our own work, could we increase the overall rate of progress?
For the health of science, we clearly must encourage courageous scientists, who invent and work on their own ideas rather than what is fashionable. And to make true progress we must increase rather than limit the diversity of approaches to the truly hard problems.
My last question is simple. Has anyone got any idea exactly how we do all this?


Lee Smolin is a theoretical physicist who has been a professor at several North American universities and a visitor at several British universities. He is currently a researcher at Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and adjunct professor of physics at the University of Waterloo in Ontario.





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New Scientist 2 March 2002 File Info: Created 15/5/2002 Updated 15/5/2002  Page Address: