Monday, March 3, 2014

Brenner interview

Ellen Lau send me this link to an interview with Sydney Brenner, one of the giants of modern molecular biology and a current skeptic regarding the scientific virtues of Big Data (here). In this interview, Brenner does not discuss the latter, but he has some interesting things to say about the modern academic setting as compared to days of yore. Here are some things that caught my eye.

  • 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.


  1. I read the piece with interest, but I think it unfairly romanticizes the past. One of the reasons why it was possible for folks like Brenner, Sanger, Higgs et al. to enjoy such freedom and lack of 'accountability' is that they lived in an age where science was very undemocratic. A very small number of people had an opportunity to do cutting edge science in a very small number of elite institutions in a very small number of countries. It was the Downton Abbey of science. If you were one of the lucky few who could get into the manor, then life was good, and great things might sometimes happen. But if you replace that with a world where more people get to go to college, where folks from all around the world can aspire to compete for research positions, and where working in a less-than-ancient university does not confine you to irrelevance, then it is hard to do everything the same. It's easy to complain about the accountability etc. -- and I'm happy to contribute to the chorus -- but the alternative world of privilege and patronage is not quite as pretty as it may have looked to those in the castle.

    1. I think you are confusing Edwardian England and the post WWII world. Recall that Brenner and friends did their most important work in the 50s-80s. This was the period where there was lots of money for basic science and for public universities, especially in the US (I don't know about the UK). This money came from the defense and energy depts and was part of the ideological fight with the Soviet Union. One of the nice features of this money was that it cam with relatively few strings attached and the "supervision" was minimal. As you know, early work in linguistics was funded with this kind of money.

      This period also coincided with the rise of the research public university. The UC system was probably the greatest system of higher education and advanced basic research ever devised and Berkeley, for a while, produced as many PhDs and Nobel Prize winners as the rest of the US (and Europe) combined (a slight exaggeration). So, contrary to what you suggest, this period saw the emergence of a very broad based push into basic science with the bulk of innovative work being carried out not in the Ivies but in the publics (plus MIT, an institution largely supported with public funds). This period also coincided with the huge increase in university attendance, largely initiated with the GI bill. This was all financed with public money, a lot of it. Sputnik helped too.

      Moreover, all of this money was very lightly supervised. The more intrusive big science bureaucracy came into being with the contraction in these funds. There were more centers competing for the money, but there was also less money (in real terms) to be had. Moreover, with the fall of the Soviet Union the belief in public education and basic science eroded, and the money started drying up. The idea that replaced it is that science was valuable to the degree that it created product, e.g. cures, technologies, weapons etc.(remember bench to bed?). This is what has led to the changes that Brenner identifies.

      Not surprisingly, as the spigots got monitored, the institutions that support scientists started regulating the scientists. The NIH, NSF, Universities became obsessed with entrepreneurialism, the idea that ideas could make everyone better off in immediately measurable ways. What we are experiencing today is the tail end of the corporatization of academic life Note: the university higher ups are more often than not, not even academics). The conceptual ideal of an institution toda is the business enterprise. Bottom lines are what count, so we must count in ways that provide recognizable bottom lines. No doubt, good work can be done in this environment, and some will emerge successful (nod nod wink wink) but it fundamentally changes the enterprise by delimiting the kinds of problems that can be pursued and by creating pressures that can (and do) stifle basic research. This is what Brenner points to.

      You suggest that the values he champions are aristocratic. I agree. It is the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge sake without concern for the bottom line. I do not find these values incompatible in principle with a broad based research community. Indeed, the current atmosphere, with the demise of public funding, is what is leading the elite institutions to gain pre-eminence given their huge edge in private support. At any rate, to find room for basic work, we need to find ways of lowering the pressure, for allowing for the pursuit of projects that have no obvious payoff. This was the academic world that existed in the 50s-70s. This is ending. The real question for basic science is whether the virtues of the golden age can be preserved despite the hostility towards it. I am skeptical. But one thing I am pretty sure of: unless we dump the entrepreneurialist framing of the research agenda, this will be impossible.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Yes, a small handful of institutions in an even smaller number of countries did very well for a while. And they were able to attract a lot of talent, as there weren't too many places for the talent to go. But to hear the folks from MIT, Cambridge, Berkeley, etc. talk about how great it all was does sound to me like characters out of Downton Abbey saying how they miss the freedom and comfort of the old days. Where are the stories from the folks in Florida, Warwick, Singapore, Delhi, Sao Paolo, etc.? My impression is of an era where a very small number of places (not only universities - Bell Labs was among them) did a great job of seizing the available opportunities and creating special environments. But hearing the stories of the winners tells only part of the story.

      Does the democratization of science lead to better outcomes at the pointy end? I'm not sure that it does. We certainly have evidence of how it creates a a race to the bottom in many ways, and that is part of what Brenner rightly bemoans. But that strikes me as pretty similar to what happens in democracies more generally.

    4. I'm not sure you are addressing Brenner's real concerns. It is not nostalgia for a golden age where only a few places had resources. It is nostalgia for a time when research could be conducted without UNDUE concern for immediate results. This golden age extended to a wide range of institutions for a while, the 50s-80s. Universities were flush, open to many and productive. It was not only Berkeley and Bell Labs. All the midwest schools were terrific: Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio State. Darpa had a much lighter touch than Iarpa does now and the NIH was supporting basic research rather than acting as a drug testing center. It is true that funding got tighter in part because many more places became better. But it also got tighter because it stopped keeping pace with inflation and even got cut back. This crated a different sort of pressure, one in which certain kinds of work do not flourish; ones with a longer tome horizon.

      You raise an interesting issue: whether this is a product of the democratization of funding. I think not. I don't see any reason why wide based funding need be as bureaucratic as it now is. It once wasn't. However, whether it can now change given the way it is, is less certain. Institutions like to retain their power and people within them to retain their privileges. Now that the science bureaucracy and the university leadership is intent on "getting results" for their investments, we may never be able to go back to a time where people were left alone to think. That system, in retrospect, did produce lots of good results, even of the measurable kind. But it seems that meddling is addictive and supervisors love to direct. Brenner had some useful suggestions on how to change this a little for the better.

    5. Yes, there's much pressure nowadays for rapid results, and a corresponding bias for lower-risk research. Some of this pressure comes from above, but much of it also comes from within. Students, postdocs, younger faculty can't easily get ahead if they're brilliant and worked on high-risk long-term projects, but have little to show for it. And they also need to get results in relatively short order for their own well being, at least when they see others doing the same.

      So how to ensure that there's space for more ambitious research that might not deliver so quickly? I think that we can agree that we'd like to see this happen, but it needs a practical solution. And if it depends on public investment, then it needs some degree of transparency, I presume.

      One option is to give everybody the freedom to do this who wants to. Not gonna happen. There are just too many people. So you have to make choices. And you need to do this in a fashion that is defensible.

      You could give most of the resources to a handful of institutions. The Europeans are often attracted by this notion, partly because they think that the success of the US system is due to the wealth and concentration of resources in the Ivies. (They are of course wrong about this.)

      Or you could give most of the resources - in long-term investments - to a handful of individuals. That's the Howard Hughes model in biology. It's probably effective in many ways, but likely a harder sell using public funds (though the Max Planck model in Germany sneaks in something similar).

      You could invest in groups of related scientists for longer-term projects, e.g., 10-year horizon. That's what happened with NSF's Science of Learning centers, for example. But it should be noted that NSF has discontinued this program in part because the peer scientists judged that the investments were not sufficiently effective, relative to investing in smaller projects.

      ... and once you've come up with an alternative way of deciding how to allocate resources, you then need a way to ensure that young scientists can be mobile early in their careers, and able to gain independent positions before they hit their forties.

  2. Very telling, I think, is the negative reaction Brenner reports to his 1% lottery idea, which goes far beyond rational budgeting, and flies in the face of what we know about how evolution works (the reaction, not the idea). As if the administrators and 'stakeholders' still believed the old misinterpretation of Darwinism whereby there as an 'ideal type' that could be identified and propagated. Also the fallacy that if some X (in this case, for X=oversight) is good, (much) more X must be (much) better.

  3. @Colin Phillips: I take your main point to be that there are too many people & too few resources if science is to be a democratic social enterprise. I think that's false on (at least) two accounts:

    1) way too many people pursue academic careers compared with how many of those people actually desire those career paths. If I accept your contention that there are too many folks for the sake of argument, then addressing this issue would go a long way to solving it I think.

    This is an issue because the availability of other sorts of employment has drastically been reduced since the 50's-70's while at the same time the education sector has become a commercial industry unto itself. The prevailing logic--inculcated at every step of elementary education-- is that if you are worth anything as a human being you must pursue higher education. I live in Canada, which is basically a petro-state with some service/skilled labour based fringes (which are limited to narrow fields). Given on the one hand the limited employment available (not everyone wants to, or can make trendy apps), and the social pressure in lower-education this has led to a pretty sad state of affairs in our universities. I can give you more details if you'd like.

    2) the capital generated by the America, Canadian economies (for example) is arguably being under-estimated when it comes to funding science, as is noticeable by comparing the talk about funding multinationals. Since the lack of funding for higher-ed is a hot topic these days, and the relevant data is easily available from non-controversial sources I'll avoid the argument-from-copious citation here.

    "Does the democratization of science lead to better outcomes at the pointy end? I'm not sure that it does. We certainly have evidence of how it creates a a race to the bottom in many ways, and that is part of what Brenner rightly bemoans. But that strikes me as pretty similar to what happens in democracies more generally."

    Aside from that I do get the impression that for many, including yourself, this isn't really a discussion about the viability of mass, public science, but about whether or not democracy is desirable. See above quote. If so, then we're having a completely different discussion.