Monthly Archives: June 2014

ALL ABOUT TODAY’S HYPER-COMPETITION FOR RESEARCH GRANTS

 

Hyper-Competition for Research Grants Stimulates the Decay of Science!    (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Hyper-Competition for Research Grants Causes Science to Decay!(http://dr-monsrs.net)

            Today, the effort to acquire more research grant funding is first and foremost for university science faculty.  This daily struggle goes way beyond the normal useful level of competition, and thus must be termed a hyper-competition.  Hyper-competition is vicious because: (1) every research scientist competes against every other scientist for grant funding, (2) an increasing number of academic scientists now are trying to acquire a second or third research grant, (3) absolutely everything in an academic science career now depends upon success in getting a research grant and having that renewed, (4) the multiple penalties for not getting a grant renewal (i.e., loss of laboratory, loss of lab staff, additional teaching assignments, decreased salary, reduced reputation, inability to gain tenured status) often are enough to either kill or greatly change a science faculty career in universities, and, (5) this activity today takes up more time for each faculty scientist than is used to actually work on experiments in their laboratory.

            This system of hyper-competition for research grant awards commonly causes destructive effects.  I previously have touched on some aspects of hyper-competition within previous articles.  In this essay, I try to bring together all parts of this infernal problem so that everyone will be able to clearly perceive its causation and its bad consequences for science, research, and scientists.

How did the hyper-competition for research grants get started? 

            Hyper-competition first grew and increased as a successful response to the declining inflow of money into universities during recent decades (see my recent article in the Money&Grants category on “Three Money Cycles Support Scientific Research”).  The governmental agencies offering grants to support scientific research projects always have tried to encourage participation by more scientists in their support programs, and so were happy to see the resultant increase in the number of applications develop.  Hyper-competition continues to grow today from the misguided policies of both universities and the several different federal granting agencies.

Who likes this hyper-competition for research grants?

            Universities certainly love hyper-competition because this provides them with more profits.  They encourage and try to facilitate its operation in order to obtain even greater profits from their business.  Additionally, universities now measure their own level of academic success by counting the size of external research funding received via their employed science faculty.

            Federal research grant agencies like this hyper-competition because it increases their regulatory power, facilitates their ability to influence or determine the direction of research, and enhances their importance in science.

            Faculty scientists are drawn into this hyper-competition as soon as they find an academic job and receive an initial research grant award.  They then are trapped within this system, because their whole subsequent career depends on continued success with getting research grant(s) renewed.  Although funded scientists certainly like having research grant(s) and working on experimental research, I know that many university scientists privately are very critical of this problematic situation.

What is causing increases in the level of hyper-competition?

             The hyper-competition for research grants, and the resulting great pressure on university scientists, are increased by all of the following activities and conditions.

                        (1)  The number of applications rises due to several different situations: more new Ph.D.s are graduated every year; many foreign doctoral scientists immigrate to the USA each year to pursue their research career here; universities encourage their successful science faculty to acquire multiple grant awards; the faculty are eager to get several research grant awards in order to obtain security in case one of their grants will not be renewed; and, the research grant system is set up to make research support awards for relatively short periods of time, thereby increasing the number of applications submitted for renewed support in each 10 year period.

                    (2)  Hard-money faculty salaries increasingly depend upon the amount of money brought in by research grant awards, and the best way to increase that number is to acquire additional grants.

                        (3)  The number of regular science faculty with soft-money salaries is rising.  Since only very few awards will support 100% of the soft-money salary level, this situation necessitates acquiring several different research grants.

                        (4)  Professional status as a member of the science faculty and as a university researcher now depends mainly on how many dollars are acquired from research grant awards.  The more, the merrier!

                        (5)  Academic status and reputation of departments and universities now depends mainly on how many dollars are acquired from research grant awards.   The more, the merrier!

                        (6)  In periods with decreased economic activity, appropriations of tax money sent to federal granting agencies tend to either decrease or stop increasing.  This means that more applicants must compete for fewer available dollars.  In turn, this results in a greater number of worthy awardees receiving only partial funding for their research project; the main way out of this frustrating situation is to apply for and win additional research grants.

What effects are produced by the hyper-competition for research grant awards? 

             It might be thought that greater competition amongst scientists would have the good effect of increasing the quality and significance of new experimental findings, since the scientists succeeding with this system should be better at research.  That proposition is theoretically possible, but is countered by all the bad effects produced by this system (see below).  I believe the funding success of some scientists only shows that they are better at business, rather than being better at science.  I know of no good effects coming from the hyper-competition for research grant awards.

            Several different bad effects of hyper-competition on science and research now can be identified as coming from the intense and extensive struggle to win research grant awards.

(1)  Science becomes distorted and even perverted.  Science and research at academic institutions now are business activities.  The chief purpose of hiring university scientists now is to make more financial profits for their employer (see my early article in the Scientists category on “What’s the New Main Job of Faculty Scientists Today?”); finding new knowledge and uncovering the truth via research are only the means towards that end.

(2)  The integrity of science is subverted by the hyper-competition for research grants.  The consequences of losing research funding are so great that it is very understandable that more and more scientists now eagerly trying to obtain a research grant award become willing to peek sideways, instead of looking straight ahead (see my earlier article in the Big Problems category on “Why would any Scientist ever Cheat?”).  There are an increasing number of recent cases known where corruption and cheating arose specifically as a response to the enormous pressures generated on faculty by the hyper-competition for research grant awards (see my article in the Big Problems category on “Important Article by Daniel Cressey in 2013 Nature: “ ‘Rehab’ helps Errant Researchers Return to the Lab”).

(3)  Seeking research grant awards now takes up much too much time for research scientists employed at universities.  This occupies even more faculty time than is used to conduct research experiments in their lab (see my article in the Scientists category on “Why is the Daily Life of Modern University Scientists so very Hectic?”)!

(4)  Because the present research grant system is defective, the identity of successful scientists has changed and degenerated such that several very unpleasant questions now must be asked (e.g., Is the individual champion scientist with the most dollars from research grant awards primarily a businessperson or a research scientist?  Should graduate students in science now also be required to take courses in business administration?  What happens if someone is a very good researcher, but has no skills or interests in finances and business?  Could some scientist be a superstar with getting research grant awards, but almost be a loser with doing experimental research?).

(5)  If ethical misbehavior becomes more common because it is stimulated by hyper-competition , then could “minor cheating in science” become “the new normal”?  Integrity is essential for research scientists, but the number of miscreants seems to be increasing.

(6)  Inevitably, younger science faculty working in this environment with hyper-competition start asking themselves, “Is this really what I wanted to do when I worked to become a professional scientist?” The increasing demoralization of university science faculty is growing to become quite extensive.

            Grantspersonship refers to a strong drive in scientists to obtain more research grant awards by using whatever it takes to become successful in accomplishing this goal (see my recent article in the Money&Grants category on “Why is ‘Grantspersonship’ a False Idol for Research Scientists, and Why is it Bad for Science?”).  Grantspersonship and hyper-competition both are large drivers of finances at universities.   The Research Grant Cycle is based on the simple fact that more grant awards mean greater profits to universities (see my recent article in the Money&Grants category on “Three Money Cycles Support Scientific Research”).  The hyper-competition in The Research Grant Cycle is very pernicious, since the primary goal of research scientists becomes to get the money, with doing good research being strictly of secondary importance.  Grantspersonship sidetracks good science and good scientists.

What do the effects of hyper-competition lead to? 

            All the effects of the current hyper-competition for research grant awards are bad and primarily mean that: (1)  science at universities is just another business; (2)  the goal of scientific research has changed from finding new knowledge and valid truths, into acquiring more money; (3)  the best scientist and the best university now are identified as that one which has the largest pile of money; (4)  corruption and dishonesty in science are being actively caused and encouraged by the misguided policies of universities and the research grant agencies; and, (5)  researchers now are being forced to waste very much time with non-research activities.  Hyper-competition thus results in more business and less science, more corruption and less integrity, more wastage of time and money, and, more diversion of science from its true purpose.  It is obvious to me that all of these consequences of hyper-competition are very bad for science, bad for research in academia, and, bad for scientists.

Can anything be done to change the present hyper-competition for research grants? 

            The answer to this obvious question unfortunately seems to be a loud, “No”!  The status quo always is hard to change, even when it very obviously is quite defective or counterproductive.  Both universities and granting agencies love this hyper-competition for research grant awards, and this destructive system now is very firmly entrenched in modern universities and modern experimental science.

            Big changes are needed in the policies of educational institutions and of federal agencies offering research grants.  Until masses of faculty scientists and interested non-scientists are willing to stand up and demand these changes, there will only be more hyper-competition, more corruption, more wasted time and money, and, more wasted lives.  In other words, science and research will continue to decay.

Concluding remarks

            Hyper-competition for research grant awards in universities now dominates the academic life of all science faculty members doing research.  Although it pleases universities and the research grant agencies, this hyper-competition subverts integrity and honesty, changes the goal of scientific research, wastes very much time for faculty scientists, and sidetracks science from its traditional role and importance.

            I know that many dedicated scientists on academia accept this perverse condition because they are successful in getting funded and want to stay funded.  Winners in the hyper-competition for research grant awards would not dare to ever give a negative opinion about this system, for fear of losing their blessed status.  They justify their position by stating that they would never cheat, they are too good at their research to ever be turned down for a grant renewal, and their university employer definitely wants them to continue their good research work.  It is sad that many will find out only when it is too late that they are very mistaken and very expendable.

 

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IS MODERN SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH WORTH ITS VERY LARGE COST?

 Are We Spending Too Much Money for Scientific Research?   (http://dr-monsrs.net)

Are We Spending Too Much Money for Scientific Research?   (http://dr-monsrs.net)

            Recently, I explained why scientific research costs so very much (see article in the Money&Grants category on “Why is Science so Very Expensive?”)  With that understanding we now can wonder whether spending this very large total amount of money to support research studies is worthwhile (i.e., do the results justify the costs)?  This is a very natural question for all taxpayers who are forced to support research studies; but, this question is not so easy to answer because there are no objective measures upon which to base the evaluations.  The public views scientific research almost totally only on the basis of practical considerations (e.g., will this study cure a disease, will that research produce a much cheaper product, will these investigations help agricultural productivity, etc.).  To be fair both to taxpayers and the scientists conducting grant-supported research, we will first look at how to evaluate individual research projects, and then step back to consider the value received from all the total research activity. 

Are Individual Research Projects Worth their Costs? 

            Basic research seeks new knowledge for its own sake.  Most people judge the importance of basic research studies as being a total waste of money (e.g., “What difference does it make to me or to society if we know more facts about the nest-building behavior of another tropical fruit-eating bird?”).  This type of judgment by non-scientists is based on ignorance; moreover, they do not recognize that many esoteric findings from basic research much later turn out to have a very wide importance and significant practical uses.These thoughts lead me to believe that it is best to look at the critical opinions of experts rather than to use our everyday opinions based on emotions and ignorance.   Only experts have the full background and technical experience needed to form valid judgments about the worthiness of research projects in basic science.  My conclusion here is that the costs and benefits of basic science research can only be validly evaluated by experts. 

            For applied research, experimental and engineering studies are used to design a new offering or improve an existing commercial product.  Applied research and development efforts all are funded by a commercial business only up to the point that the total expenses must be less than the expected profits coming from future sales of the new or improved product.  Judgments by non-scientists about the worthiness of applied research are based only on personal preferences, and therefore commonly differ from one person to another. Again, opinions from experts are better.

How are Official Judgments Made about Worthiness in Proposed Research Studies? 

            Given that it is difficult for non-scientists to objectively evaluate the worthiness of most basic research studies in modern science, we must look briefly at how the official decisions about funding are made by granting agencies.  They are supposed to carefully consider whether the money requested is appropriate to accomplish the stated aims in each project, and how the results will have value for science and society. Both quality and quantity are evaluated for the different aspects of all reviews (e.g., design of experiments, significance of answering the research questions, amount of time and money required, availability of needed laboratory facilities, training of the principal investigator, etc.).  With applications for renewal of research support, reviewers then must look both forward (i.e., what will be done?) and backward (i.e., what has been accomplished during the previous period of support?).  The expert reviewers also make both official and unofficial examinations about whether the selected research subject needs further study, and if significance of the expected results will justify the budget being requested.   

            The evaluation mechanism used by granting agencies avoids the ignorance problem by using experts to make these evaluations.  Critical judgments of grant applications by expert reviewers (i.e., other scientists) constitute peer review.  Expert reviewers often have approved research studies that non-scientists in the public regard as being a waste of money; as explained earlier, this lack of agreement largely is due to the very large difference in knowledge and technical experience.  The validity of decisions by the official referees is enlarged by the fact that research grant applications are evaluated and judged by several experts, thereby usually avoiding any one opinion from becoming a mistake.  Projects judged to have little conceivable significance for science, poor design, inadequate controls, mundane ideas, technical problems, etc., all usually are eliminated from funding by reviewers for the research grant agencies.  The official evaluation of research grant proposals is a filtering mechanism, and this includes evaluation of the costs and benefits. 

            In principle, all the expert evaluations of applications by scientists for research grants should lead to funding of only those research projects having importance for science and society.  Although this usually does happen, due to the very large number of research grant applications and the even larger number of reviewers, some small number of mistakes is made both for what is funded and what is not funded. 

The Cost/Benefits Question for the Total Scientific Research

            How can we best make a valid judgment about whether spending very large amounts of money on all scientific research is worthwhile?  Looking at the evaluations for many thousands of individual research projects and then averaging does not give a very satisfying answer.  Accordingly, we must ask here whether a different approach needs to be taken to obtain a more meaningful conclusion?  By looking at the totality of all funded research projects, then there is a much more solid basis upon which to make an evaluation of costs versus benefits.  I will explain this below, using the well-known examples of transistors and carbon nanotubes. 

            The invention and development of the transistor was initially only a physical curiosity (see the fascinating personal recollections by one of the leading research participants [1]).  Its discovery exemplifies basic research in action, because its ultimate usefulness was not foreseen.  Non-scientists all would have concluded that spending money for its discovery was pointless.  After much further research and many engineering developments, electronics and computers using transistors now are found everywhere in the modern world.  Once its practical importance was documented, the initial negative judgments rapidly changed to become strongly positive. 

            Carbon nanotubes were observed by Iijima in 1990-1991 while conducting basic research studies on a different type of carbon specimen with his electron microscope [2,3].  This unexpected observation of carbon nanotubes was a chance event, and is a wonderful example of serendipity in basic research.  Iijima was not trying to study carbon nanotubes, because nobody was aware that they existed!  Today, after further research investigations both in academia and industry, carbon nanotubes are found in several different important commercial products, and hundreds of scientists and engineers now are working on new uses for these very small materials within innovative products designed for medicine, energy storage, and high technology. 

            Early judgments about the worthiness of studying transistors and carbon nanotubes were negative and wrong.  The money produced from all the present widespread usage of transistors is absolutely gigantic, and probably is, or soon will be, matched by the value of new products and many developing uses for carbon nanotubes.  Thereby, the cost/benefits ratio for both are small, and all the money spent for their research studies must be judged to be very, very worthwhile.  Moreover, the dollars coming from these 2 research discoveries alone have more than paid for all the numerous other scientific investigations that have had a much less notable outcome.  Therefore, I believe that public funding of all worthy research studies is very worthwhile.  My positive conclusion about the huge pile of money spent on research is that this is good, because by enabling all the very numerous ordinary research investigations that result in less spectacular or even mundane results, the chances that some really great unanticipated breakthroughs will be produced are notably increased. 

            Money most certainly is not the only measure for significance of scientific research!  Investigations producing a breakthrough in research or a dramatic change in knowledge can have enormous importance for the progress of science.  One good example of this is the recent arrival of the new concept of nanoscience; this new branch of physical science deals with materials just slightly bigger than individual atoms and molecules.  Nanoscience now has extended into specialized areas of research, such as nanochemistry, nano-engineering, nanomedicine, nanotechnology, and, others [e.g., 4].  Nanoscience really represents a new way of thinking for scientists in these areas.  

Concluding Statements

            History is the ultimate judge for the worthiness of funding research studies!  From the considerations described above, I draw 3 conclusions.
1.  Basic research findings can take many years to develop into spectacular commercial products that are widely utilized.  The ultimate success and worthiness of specific grant-supported basic research is almost impossible to predict.
2.  For research projects in basic science, worthiness must be judged one at a time, and independently from practical usage.  Significance of results from this or that research project only can be judged validly by other expert scientists.
3.  The value of spending so much money to support scientific research is best measured by considering the totality of research results acquired by all funded studies.  When viewed in this light, the funding of numerous projects that turn out to be only ordinary is seen to be good because this increases the chances that some unanticipated spectacular findings are acquired and thereby greatly benefit both science and society. 


[1]  Mullis, K.B., 2012.  Conversation with John Bardeen.  Available on the internet at:
http://karymullis.com/pdf/interview-jbardeen.pdf .  

[2]  Iijima, S., & The Vega Science Trust, 1997.  Nanotubes: The materials of the 21st century.  Available on the internet at:  http://vega.org.uk/video/programme/71 .

[3]  Iijima, S., 2011.  The discovery of carbon nanotubes.  Available on the internet at:  http://nanocarb.meijo-u.ac.jp/jst/english/Iijima/sumioE.html .

[4]  XII International Conference on Nanostructured Materials, Moscow, Russia, 2014.  NANO 2014.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.nano2014.org/ . 

 

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A LARGE PROBLEM IN SCIENCE EDUCATION: MEMORIZATION IS NOT ENOUGH, AND IS NOT THE SAME AS UNDERSTANDING!

  Climbing the Path of Learning!   (http://dr-monsrs.net)

Climbing the Path of Learning!     (http://dr-monsrs.net)

            Education about science is widely recognized as being quite deficient in the modern USA.  I have previously described some defects for science education aimed at levels from youngsters in grade school (see early article in the Education category on “What is Wrong with Science Education for Children?”), to graduate students in science (see earlier article in the Education category on “What is Missing in Today’s Education of Student Scientists?”), and to adults in the general public (see essay in the Education category on “Most of Today’s Public Education About Science is Worthless!”).  A very general educational problem in colleges and universities is how to teach a big chunk of knowledge to students who perceive no reason to study that subject beyond the requirement that a course be passed.  A recent article by Dawn C. Meredith and Edward F. Redish in the July, 2013 issue of Physics Today [1], along with subsequent comments submitted by other college teachers [2], deals with this problem for science education in Physics, and are highly recommended to science educators. 

            When college and university students take a required science course they quickly become hopelessly stuck in a learning rut where memorization constitutes their only skill for learning, and is used wrongly as a substitute for understanding.   I have seen this many times in my own classroom experiences as a faculty teacher; modern university students often excel at memorizing to such an enormous extent that they literally are majoring in this activity.  Both students and their teachers at all levels too frequently rely on memorization to learn and to teach!  Students end up deep in negative territory, by developing no understanding and a poor ability to use the memorized knowledge (e.g., to solve problems, discuss concepts,  ask questions, etc.); the hole gets even deeper when they later try to learn more advanced knowledge. 

Learning, Knowledge, Memorization, Understanding: What Exactly do These Key Educational Terms Mean? 

            Learning is internalizing knowledge into the brain, and occurs via schooling, observing, imitation, inspection, and experience.  Learning can occur at any time in the human lifespan; it can be regarded as pleasant or unpleasant by students, and sometimes is defective (e.g., 2 x 3 = 5) or incomplete (e.g., 2 x 3 = 3 x 2).  

            Knowledge is factual details about some subject (e.g., describing the parts of a flower), definitions of concepts and relationships, and, skills in some operation (e.g., speaking a new language, making a good weld, cooking a cheese omelet, etc.).  Knowledge might involve memorization, but more often it arises naturally from trial and error experiences, observation,  reading and thinking, and, figuring something out (i.e., problem solving). 

            Memorization is one type of learning.  It is a mental activity for adding material to the brain’s memory bank.  Memory commonly is produced by repetition, and can be subdivided into long-term or short-term storage.  Recall from the memory bank is rapid and typically requires little thought, calculation, debate, or understanding.  Memorization enables a quick response to frequently arising mechanical types of questions (e.g., What is 2 times 4?  What is the French word for “today”?  How many centimeters are in one inch?  How many strikes produce an out in baseball?).  Memorization provides all of us with many easy practical benefits for daily life, and also is very useful on the job. 

            Understanding follows from knowledge, and features the ability to interrelate different aspects of some subject, to use logic to extrapolate for new situations (i.e., it can produce a hypothetical explanation, either valid or invalid, for something not directly known), and, to derive generalizations and make predictions.  Understanding relies on learning how to think.  The ultimate widest understanding is termed “wisdom”. 

How do Memorization and Understanding Differ? 

            These 4 terms might be seen more clearly if we examine how people learn to speak a new (second) language.  Young children learn this mostly by imitating adult speakers and talking to their teacher.  For adults, the first task is to acquire some basic vocabulary; this initial learning most often is done by memorization (i.e., using flash cards, or a computer program).  Next, knowledge about basic rules for sentence structure and grammar are acquired; some of this learning is done by memorizing, but much also comes from imitation (e.g., listening to a recording of native speakers conversing).  Then, one puts that knowledge together and tries to speak and converse in the new language; the instructor teaches by providing correct examples and by identifying, correcting, and explaining mistakes.  Most speaking and listening skills are developed progressively by gaining experience with conversing in the classroom or talking with other speakers; this corresponds to increasing one’s understanding!  Understanding will be increased further by learning to read and write the same new language.  Upon finishing, one is said to have “learned” and to “know” the new language, and to “understand” how to use it; thus, memorization is seen here as a good tool for initial learning, but is not used so much at later times for acquiring increased understanding. 

            Knowledge and understanding are quite interactive.  In general, some basic knowledge exists before understanding begins and develops.  Knowledge frequently involves facts and definitions, but understanding involves concepts and reaches conclusions.  Memorization alone is not sufficient, because understanding also needs to be acquired.  Many students and teachers mistakenly feel that memorized knowledge can substitute for understanding, but this is almost never true.  If someone learns how to ice-skate and then memorizes all the official rules for ice hockey, that person still would not be able to play this sporting game very well because their understanding is much too limited.  They could gain the needed understanding by acquiring more experience with watching and playing in actual competition; that understanding will not directly involve any memorization, and can be acquired from individual efforts, other players, and a coach-teacher. 

Why is Memorization Now so very Popular with Science Students and their Teachers? 

            Unfortunately, memorization by students is emphasized, encouraged, and even worshipped by many teachers giving courses in science.  It also is enormously popular with university science students, who see memorization as being the only practical way to “learn” all the very numerous facts, figures, and concepts presented by textbooks and lectures; these intelligent students can see no other way to acquire all this large volume of materials that must be learned by the time of the next examination.  Clearly, these students only are building their short-term memory and do not realize the importance of either long-term memory or understanding. 

            The cardinal role of memorization in current science education is strengthened further in the minds of students because their teachers write examination questions that only are about facts and almost never necessitate making judgments, interpretations, reasoning, problem solving, and dealing with derived conclusions.  This mindless practice often is justified by teachers, using such explanations as, “It takes much too long to score written essay questions!”, “When we have a class size of 150 students, we are forced to use computerized scoring of multiple choice questions for our exams!”, and, “We have to use strictly factual questions from our textbook since many students unfortunately are not able to think, reason, write, or speak because of gross deficiencies in their previous education.” 

            In my opinion, all such reasons only are excuses for laziness by science teachers and their employers.  The misuse of memorization by students and instructors as being equivalent to understanding results in incomplete and inadequate education.  I know all of this is true because I myself have seen it, and have been forced to do it as a teacher.  In my classes I actually have seen modern science students not only memorize an entire big textbook, but also memorize all the diagrams and photographs.  When this task is finished, they then sincerely do believe that they “know everything”!  That assertion is contradicted by the fact that most cannot deal with new situations, derive relationships, provide examples for concepts, solve problems, conduct a discussion, or even answer simple questions involving a little thinking.  As soon as a course is completed, all of their memorizations disappear rapidly. Subsequent more advanced courses then must commence by first presenting review sessions on previous classroom subjects before they can start dealing with new topics.  The end result, which I consider to be very sad, is that these students are missing understanding and have been only very superficially educated. 

What is the Significance of Memorization for Science Education? 

            Most divisions and subdivisions of science feature numerous special terms, meaning that learning science is mostly equivalent to learning a new foreign language.  Thus, almost all science textbooks for any age level now provide a glossary and an extensive index section.  For learning science, memorization can give a basic vocabulary, a set of rules about relationships, definitions of some essential concepts, and some selected examples.  However, understanding demands much more extensive mental activity, and is usually accomplished by evaluating many more examples, some exceptions to general rules, problem solving, analyzing fundamental data, discussing alternative interpretations, and, evaluating predictions and extrapolations.  Science teachers provide guidance to expand students’ knowledge and to develop their understanding.  Without adding understanding, their ability to use knowledge remains very limited, and these students really have not learned much at all. 

            As one short example of memorization used validly in a biology science class for grade/grammar school, students might first memorize the main kinds of different forms of life.  That corresponds to memorizing a basic vocabulary.  For adding understanding to this initial knowledge, students can be shown videos of some living examples to learn a little about their habitat and distinctive attributes.  Quizzes will test memorization of essential terms and facts, but examinations only will test understanding by evaluating the ability of students to think and reason; exam questions will ask for correct placement of several previously undiscussed examples, identification of key differences between several selected life forms, and, explanation about why a dolphin is considered to be a mammal rather than a fish, etc.  A corresponding approach should be used for college and university science courses, but with a larger amount of material and more extensive scope. 

Concluding Remarks

            Memorization is good for education about science when it is used appropriately, but it can never be accepted as a substitute for understanding.  It should not be used as the only means for evaluating learning by students.  It is my hope that teachers, education specialists, school administrators, and other educators (e.g., parents!) will discuss this current problem and the possibilities for improving this aspect of science education.  I know that many teachers reading this piece will have their own viewpoints, concerns, and stories to add to those I have given here.  Trying to improve this problem in modern science education will require extensive efforts for discussions, planning, and actions.  Beyond pointing out the nature of this problem in science education, I can do no more here; it is up to all the teachers and educators working at the front line with students and administrators to actually initiate the needed changes.  I will be delighted if others will start the ball rolling (and, it must roll uphill!). 

            Questions, arguments, criticisms, and suggestions for Dr.M all will be welcomed via the Comments section below.  Please be sure to identify which level of education you are working with. 

 

[1]  Meredith, D.C., and Redish, E.F., 2013.  Reinventing physics for life-sciences majors.  Physics Today (July), 66:38-43.  (To purchase or rent this article on the internet, see:
http://scitation.aip.org/content/aip/magazine/physicstoday/article/66/7/10.1063/PT.3.2046 ). 

[2]  Letters to the Readers’ Forum, 2014.  Notes on teaching physics to biologists.  Physics Today (April), 67:12-13.  (Click any of 4 individual titles on the internet at:
http://scitation.aip.org/content/aip/magazine/physicstoday/67/4 ). 

 

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HOW DO RESEARCH SCIENTISTS BECOME VERY FAMOUS?

 

How to Win a Supreme Prize in Science!    (http://dr-monsrs.net)
What does it take to Win a Big Prize in Science?     (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

            Not all good research scientists advance to become famous, and almost all famous researchers do not achieve the highest honor of winning a Nobel Prize [1] or a Kavli Prize [2].  These facts make it seem rather mysterious how a scientist does achieve enough renown to be awarded one of those supreme honors.  What is it that makes a research scientist become famous? 

            Working scientists traditionally become acclaimed by their peers (i.e., other scientists in their field of study) primarily on the basis of one or more distinctive characteristics: (1) their experimental  findings achieve a breakthrough in research progress, thereby causing a dramatic shift of direction for many subsequent studies, (2) they resolve a long-standing research controversy, (3) they develop a new theory or concept that comes to have an expanding influence on the work of other researchers, or, (4) they invent and develop a new piece of research instrumentation or a new process for analysis of specimens.  These individuals, unlike the great bulk of ordinary research scientists, seem to have much good luck and are not so perturbed by the usual practical research problems with time and money; in one word, very famous scientists usually appear to be “blessed”.  These generalizations seem true for all the different branches of science, and are valid for scientists in numerous different countries. 

The Biggest Prizes in Science

            Only a very small handful of scientists are awarded the highest honors in science, a Nobel Prize [1] or a Kavli Prize [2].  There are many other famous scientists besides those few winners!  Some scientists are so ambitious that they undertake some of their experimental studies specifically to acquire a big prize; however, winning one of these awards is well-known to partly depend on circumstances beyond their control, such as being in the right place at the right time, succeeding with their research project to produce a widely hoped for result (e.g., creating a cure for some disease), or, working in a large field of study where many other researchers are active.  In addition, it is widely suspected that earning one of these top science prizes also depends upon certain unofficial qualifications, such as who you know, who dislikes you, and what area of science you are working with.  There can be no doubt that the awardees are fully deserving and are great scientists. 

            Readers can gain a much larger understanding about what it takes to win one of these elite honors by viewing some of the many fascinating video interviews with winners on the internet websites for the Nobel Prize (http://www.nobelprize.org/mediaplayer/ ).  These excellent videos examine the life and work of very famous scientists, both in modern times and from the last century.  Other videos present explanations of why their research work was judged to be so very important; corresponding written material is available for the Kavli Prize (http://www.kavliprize.no/seksjon/vis.html?tid=61429 ).  I have personally seen many of these and very highly recommend them to all non-scientists, as well as to younger scientists. 

The Path to Fame and Fortune in Science

            The path to fame and fortune in scientific research often is a progression of steps leading from local to national and then to international renown.  These steps reflect the formation of an enlarging network of other research scientists who are aware of the ambitious scientist, and have respect and admiration for what he or she is doing in the laboratory; eventually, the network expands so that even teachers, students, and various officials all become quite aware of this scientist.  Another mark of progressing towards fame and fortune involves receipt of more and more invitations to speak, to write, and to participate in science events at diverse locations around the world.  This advancement can be recognized by appointments to serve on committees of national organizations and editorial boards for science journals; in addition, progress also is shown by invitations to author review articles, and by receipt of public recognition within descriptive news reports in important general science journals such as Science and Nature.   Professional reputation usually moves in parallel to achievement of these hallmarks. 

            Common signs of success and fame in research scientists are achievement of some breakthrough experiment or invention, enlargement of lab personnel and research budget due to success with the research grant system, and widely acknowledged mastery in one’s field of science.  These hallmarks increase the reputation of research scientists.  For many good scientists, a very wonderful major honor is simply getting their research grants renewed, so they then are no longer required to work only on projects lasting for 3-5 years.  Nobel Laureates often, but not always, have success in dealing with the research grant system.  In addition to all the glory of winning one of the largest science prizes, there also can be some undesired consequences, such as too much attention, too many new demands for time, and, difficulty in maintaining the awardee’s extremely elevated status. 

            With regard to fortune, certain universities are notorious for paying their junior faculty only a very meager salary, but that changes dramatically when they advance in rank.  Professional scientists in academia and industry become financially comfortable, but do not usually consider themselves to really be rich.  Some university scientists do become very wealthy by starting one or more new small businesses centered on their expertise, creativity, and inventions; industrial scientists can receive bonuses for key contributions in enabling some new or improved product to be produced and marketed.  By the time of retirement, scientists usually have good savings and are entitled to full retirement benefits. 

Comments for Non-Scientists about Reputations and Awards

            Non-scientist readers should try to understand that a renowned and very appreciated faculty scientist at a college or small university might be very highly honored locally, and deservedly so, but could have little national renown and no international reputation.  Some other famous scientist working at a prestigious very large university might be more appreciated nationally and internationally, than locally.  My message here is that the amount of “success and renown” is relative; researchers do not have to become a Nobel Laureate or a Kavli Prize awardee in order to be recognized as being a famous and excellent scientist.   

            Some readers will wonder about whether a young scientist could direct all their professional efforts towards winning a big science prize, and succeed in this ambition?  That is possible in theory, but is very, very unlikely in practice.  Even if a researcher earned a doctorate at Harvard, was a Postdoc at Berkeley and Basel, achieved tenure at Columbia University (New York), and was good with both politics and people, there is no guarantee that this scientist will receive one of these very large honors.  There simply are too many unknowns and too many personalities involved to make receipt of a Nobel Prize or Kavli Prize anything other than very uncertain and doubtful.  In fact, some really outstanding research scientists do not receive the supreme award that they so clearly deserve [3].  I believe that it is good for scientists to be ambitious and to strive to win a big prize, but the simple fact is that very few excellent and famous researchers achieve this highest honor.  

 Concluding Remarks

            Many research scientists in academia and industry work very hard to achieve excellence and to be appreciated by their peers, students, and employer, and by the public.  There is no single path to becoming labeled as a famous scientist, and the route always contains many hurdles and frustrations.  When all is said and done, it always is internally satisfying if a mature scientist regards themself as being successful, even if they also have some human defects or run into insurmountable problems.  Self-satisfaction and peer recognition indeed are very big rewards for doing an excellent job in science and research. 

 

[1]  The Nobel Prize, 2014.  876 Nobel Laureates since 1901.   Available on the internet at:
http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/index.html  .

[2]  The Kavli Prize, 2014.  The Kavli Prize – Science prizes for the future.   Available on the internet at:
http://www.kavliprize.no/artikkel/vis.html?tid=27868 .

[3]  E. Westly, 2008.   No Nobel for you: Top 10 Nobel snubs.   Available on the internet at:
http://www.scientificamerican.com/slideshow.cfm?id=10-nobel-snubs .

 

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