- Like many, he finds problems with the current academic environment, and finds it a particularly hostile environment for the development of new ideas. It is interesting to read how hostile the bio establishment was to work that has since become the reigning paradigm.
- It is also interesting to read how people who changed the field (e.g. Frederick Sanger, who revolutionized the field not once, but twice) would have trouble today getting grants or tenure. The need to publish frequently in the "best journals" would have hindered Sanger's ability to make the huge contributions that he did.
- I also enjoyed his praise of ignorance, which he ties with originality. For Brenner, one of the advantages of youth is the ignorance of the field and cherished methods that generally graces it. This is what makes it easier for "kids" to propose big ideas and challenge settled opinion. Remember this when old farts (like me) go on and on about how ignorant the newer breed of linguists are and how they don't know squat about past results. A good part of innovation involves ignoring what's come before and reinventing (and caricaturing) received wisdom.
- I also particularly liked Brenner's jaundiced observations concerning science bureaucracies, whose aim is to make research accountable. He sees them as blinkered at best and "corrupt" at worst. At the very least, even honest peer review has the tendency to filter out the unusual (original?) and promote the scientific consensus.
- Brenner has an interesting discussion on how to alleviate some of the problems he notes with the current climate. See his discussion of "casino funds" and his, IMO, very interesting idea that it be research groups rather than individuals whose research gets assessed for funding.
- When Brenner discusses his early days, there is a palpable sense of both excitement and fun surrounding work at the LMB (Lab for molecular bio). It is also clear that this made it possible for new and exciting work to get done despite the displeasure of the old guard. The fun factor is often overlooked in graduate education. Our desires to professionalize our charges and our emphasis on hard work can have the effect of making the whole thing boring and pedantic. It's nice to see someone note the intellectual cost of doing so.
Brenner's observations about the research atmosphere is similar to my own take, though his views are probably much better informed than mine. As reader know, I have my issues with both the journals and the funding agencies. However, it strikes me that the atmospherics in linguistics is similar to what Brenner highlights, with one addition. Linguistics suffers from an additional problem, not likely to be as serious in biology, namely, we have far less money sloshing around our discipline. This ratchets up the pressures that Brenner identifies in biology, which can have the consequence of raising anxiety levels which is a sure way of making everything less fun and the pursuit of originality more hazardous. It's not clear what can be done about this sadly. Nonetheless, it behooves old farts (like me) to keep this in mind when guiding and judging their younger colleagues. We lived in more forgiving times. This made it possible for us to waste our time thinking about things that might not pan out and to think about the big issues that made all the detail work exciting. I suspect that what we did then would now be judged indulgent. Too bad, for as Brenner points out this is where the new ideas come from.