Tag Archives: modern science

COULD SCIENCE AND RESEARCH NOW BE DYING?

They Just Don't Realize What Will Happen if Science Dies!!  (http://dr-monsrs.net)

They Just Don’t Realize What Happens if Science Dies!!   (http://dr-monsrs.net)

Several knowledgeable science writers have published provocative and shocking speculations that science and research are dead [e.g., 1-3].  I myself do not believe that science now is dead, because new knowledge and important new technology continue to be produced by the ever-increasing large number of graduate students, postdocs, academic and industrial researchers, and engineers.  A very good example of recent major progress is found in “3-D printing and nanoprinting” [e.g., 4,5]; this remarkable advance developed from a combination of pure basic research, applied research, and engineering developments, and exemplifies to me that science and research indeed still are alive today.

Other science writers have concluded that science is undergoing decay and degeneration despite its celebrated progress [e.g., 6,7].  I agree with these perceptions.  The nature and goals of modern scientific research at universities have changed so much that I am sadly convinced that modern science is withering from its former vigorous state.  Since there presently is almost no push against the causes of this very undesirable situation, and since there are no easy means to accomplish all the reforms and rescue efforts needed to reverse the current very negative trends, I do indeed believe that modern science actually could be dying.  Although science still is quite alive, to me it obviously is not well.

Many who disagree with my harsh conclusion will point to the enormous number of scientists now doing research studies, the massive number of tax dollars being spent on academic research, the even larger amount of dollars spent by industries for their commercial research and developmental efforts, the huge number of research scientists reporting on their latest experimental findings at the annual meetings of science societies, and, the modern advent of new research centers, new subdivisions of science, and new directions of research.  Instead of responding to each of these true statements, I will counter that most of them are not reasons why science is successful, but rather are actual symptoms resulting from the decay and degeneration of modern science.

All of the following are strictly personal opinions, and represent my reasons for believing that science now is dying.  The fundamental goal of scientific research at universities has changed into acquiring more research grant money, instead of finding more new knowledge.  Today, science seems to be progressing more and more slowly, with research advances coming in smaller and smaller steps.  The research questions being addressed almost all are smaller than those asked by scientists just a few decades ago; very many scientists in academia now seek to work only on niche studies.  The significance of the reports found in the numerous new and old research journals is decreasing with each year; superficial rather limited reports now are becoming commonplace.  Few scientists are enthusiastic about undertaking the experimental study of any really large and important research questions, since those would require at least several decades of work to find a complete answer; such efforts  are made impossible by the fact that research grants mostly are available only for 1-5 years of effort.  Many modern PhD scientists working in universities today are functioning only as highly educated research technicians working within large groups (see my recent article in the Essays category on “Individual Work versus Group Efforts in Scientific Research“); group-think is prevalent and research in academia now is only a business activity (see my earlier article in the Essays category on “What is the Very Biggest Problem for Science Today?”).  The extensive commercialization of university science sidetracks basic research, stifles individual creativity, and encourages ethical misconduct.  Individual scientists still are the fountain for new ideas and research creativity, but in modern academia they are increasingly restrained by the misguided policies of the research grant agencies and the university employers; both of these have only a very restrained enthusiasm for basic research studies.

A different large and important question always is lurking in the background whenever the status of science progress is being evaluated: could it be that much of the totality of possible knowledge already has been established by all the previous research discoveries?  In other words, is modern scientific research only working to fill in gaps within the massive amount of knowledge already acquired?  I feel that this proposal is quite debatable, since there still are many large and important research questions that remain unanswered.  However, if one switches to asking about understanding, rather than about knowledge, then I believe that very much understanding remains remains to be uncovered in all branches of science.  Although many more new facts and figures will lead to some increase in understanding, I do not actually see that outcome resulting from the many superficial research studies today; many new experimental results are publicized and certified as being “very promising”, but these often simply increase the complexity of the question and  rarely result in significant advances for real understanding.

All of these negative situations adversely impact upon the research enterprise and make it less productive, less significant, less satisfying, and more costly.  Unless changes and reforms are made, the decay in scientific research will progress further.  I feel that therapeutic interventions must be made in order to save science and research from actually dying.  The time to start these needed changes is right now, before everything gets even worse.  My hope is that more and more research scientists, science historians, science philosophers, science teachers, and science administrators will come to see the truth in my viewpoint that the research enterprise currently has decayed and is approaching a morbid condition.

Can science and research be saved from death?  What changes must be made?  Which change needs to be made first?  Is more money to support science needed to rescue science, or will more supportive funds only make this pathological situation even worse?  Who can make the needed changes and reforms?  Who will take the lead in these efforts? How can more scientists and more ordinary people be persuaded that scientific research is dying and needs to be rescued?  I will try to deal further with some of these very difficult and complex questions in later essays at this website.

 

[1]  Horgan, J., 1997.  The End of Science.  Facing the Limits of Knowledge in Light of the Scientific Age.  Broadway Books, The Crown Publishing Group, New York, 322 pages.

[2]  Staff of The Gleaner, 2011.  Is science dying?  The Gleaner, Commentary, February 28, 2011.  Available on the internet at:  http://gleaner.rutgers.edu/2011/02/28/is-science-dying/ .

[3]  LeFanu, J., 2010.  Science’s dead end.  Prospect Magazine, July 21, 2010.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/sciences-dead-end/ .

[4]  Aigner, F., & Technische Universität Wien, 2012.  3D printer with nano-precision.  Available on the internet at: http://www.tuwien.ac.at/en/news/news_detail/article/7444/ .

[5]  3dprinterworld, 2014.  News.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.3dprinterworld.com/news  .

[6]  Hubbert, M.K., 1963.  Are we retrogressing in science?  Despite superficial evidence to the contrary, science in the United States is in a state of confusion.  Science, 139:884-890.  Abstract available on the internet at:  http://www.sciencemag.org/content/139/3558/884.abstract . [7]  Phys-Org, March 27, 2012.  Has modern science become dysfunctional?  Available on the internet at:  http://phys.org/news/2012-03-modern-science-dysfunctional.html .

 

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CURIOSITY, CREATIVITY, INVENTIVENESS, AND INDIVIDUALISM IN SCIENCE

 

Edwin H. Land inspects an oversized Polaroid BLACK AND WHITE image of himself taken with one of his Polaroid cameras; recorded by an unknown photographer in the late 1940's.
Edwin H. Land inspects an oversized Polaroid black and white image of himself taken with one of his Polaroid cameras; recorded by an unknown photographer in the late 1940’s.

 

            Curiosity is the desire in some individuals to wonder about the whys and wherefores of something (e.g., how does a clock work, what causes headaches, why do humans get old and die, when will cars drive themselves, is a mouse just a little rat, where was copper mined for making the first ancient copper pots, etc.?).  Creativity is an inborn ability to think and act in new directions, and to make unrestrained or unconventional associations.  Inventiveness is an inborn ability to devise and develop new or better objects, and new ways of doing something;  inventions are new devices or processes, made and developed by an inventor (see my earlier post on “Inventors & Scientists” in the Basic Introductions category).  Individualism is found in people who readily assert their own personal characteristics of thought, interests, and demeanor, and, who are not afraid to have some of their own viewpoints be quite different from those of the general public.   Any one person, whether a scientist or a non-scientists, can potentionally excel with any of these characteristics.  Some of these features, but rarely all 4 of them, frequently are found in research scientists; when several are well-developed in one individual researcher, the results often are quite spectacular.  

 

Most scientists started out as youngsters with the natural curiosity and creativity found in almost all children.  Sometime later, during the course of their education and advanced training, they become molded into adult scientists who are more ready to think along certain channels, accept participation in group projects, and perform research with standardized experimental approaches; this process often results in very restrained individualism, diminished curiosity, near absence of  research creativity, and, redirection of activities into only tried and true pathways.  Although everyone has a distinct personality with individual likes and dislikes, most research scientists now are inhibited from thinking creatively, trying to prove that some established belief is wrong, questioning interpretations or conclusions coming from very famous other scientists, and expressing their individual  curiosity.  In the modern world, most of us, whether we are scientists or non-scientists, are expected to conform, not be very curious, and not ask too many questions (i.e., “do not rock the boat!”).  It really takes guts for any artist, musician, poet, or scientist to be a creative individual in today’s world. 

 

            In modern science, the current research grant system unforunately opposes creativity in scientists.  This is largely because a big push is given to being able to actually produce the anticipated results with the proposed experiments; grant applications proposing to conduct experiments and attack research questions with well-established experimental designs generally are favored by the grant system over those more exploratory studies seeking to use new approaches, ask unconventional questions, or, use innovative designs and new tools for analysis.  For truly creative scientists, results of their experiments often either cannot be anticipated at all or are likely to be very different from traditional expectations; this condition generally is not viewed with favor by the modern research grant system. Inventions are widely sought in modern science and research because they can produce financial gain and help provide touchable evidence that new practical devices are generated by publically-supported research grants; in other words, the granting agencies like to show the tax-paying public that research grant funds are indeed helping make daily life better or easier.  Although today’s scientists are very appreciative that the research grant system does provide considerable support for experimental science, they also are at least vaguely aware that it also tends to suppress expression of the several attributes found prominently in dedicated and innovative research scientists. 

 

            Exceptions to the above generalizations about repression of curiosity, creativity, inventiveness, and individualism in modern science are among the most fascinating of all people.   One particularly well-known example is Edwin H. Land (1909-1991), who had vigorous expression of all 4 of these characteristics.  He is most widely known as the inventor, developer, and manufacturer of the Polaroid Camera and Polaroid films [1-4].  These comprised the amazing invention of “instant photography”,  and occurred decades before the now-commonplace digital imaging cameras were born.  Land dropped out of Harvard College in order to conduct research studies, but later went on to obtain his bachelor’s degree; he succeeded in educating himself largely through self-study, similarly to what Thomas Edison did.  It now is obvious to all that Land didn’t need academic degrees in order to achieve renown, because he was supremely individualistic and a remarkably self-driven worker.  His open curiosity, creative ideas, energetic drive, and engineering insights led this researcher and inventor to develop new means to polarize photonic light, and also a new theory of color vision.  His special cameras and unique films both had multiple models and diverse varieties [3].  The Polaroid Corporation had multiple buidings and laboratories with over 10,000 employees; the research and development labs housed several talented co-researchers and engineers toiling to make very new technological advances in photography [4].  Land was a very self-motivated creator throughout his entire life.  He felt that everyone should havre direct experience in conducting experimental research as a very valuable part of getting a college education, so he established new programs for laboratory research by undergraduate students at several universities.  By the time he died, Land the physical scientist, inventor, and manufacturer had obtained over 500 patents [1,2]; this giant number stands as an objective testimonial to the inventiveness of this very creative human [3,4]. 

 

            Creativity is not essential for science, but is very useful and helpful in speeding up research progress by enabling breakthroughs and large jumps over the usual step-by-step progress in laboratory activities.  Quite often scientists have become famous largely because they invented some key device or process that enabled them to examine and study something that was unseen or unrecognized by other eager researchers.  Today, it is often believed that younger individuals are the major source for new concepts and new ideas in science.  All of these basic recognitions force the conclusion that both the agencies awarding research grants, and the academic institutions employing faculty researchers, should do more to encourage creativity, individualism, and inventiveness in scientists, instead of repressing these capabilities.  Any funding program that intentionally or unintentionally suppresses creativity and curiosity by demanding that a proposed project be almost guaranteed success, proceed only with some currently hot methodology, or follow strictly along well-known pathways of logic and analysis, is thereby retarding the progress of scientific research.  Society, schools and universities, and, granting agencies, all need to recognize the fact that the unknowns in research make good experimental studies always risky, not easily guaranteed, and very challenging; but, at the same time these conditions also make science investigations quite wonderful.  Encouraging curiosity, creativity, inventiveness, and individualism in scientists will promote better results in scientific research, and that will benefit everyone. 

    

[1]  McElheny, V. K. The National Academy Press, 2013.  Biographical Memoirs: Edwin Herbert Land, May 7, 1909 – March 1, 1991.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.nap.edu/html/biomems/eland.html

[2]   Linderman, M., 2010.  The story of Polaroid inventor Edwin Land, one of Steve Jobs’ biggest heroes.  Available on the internet at:  http://signalvnoise.com/posts/2666-the-story-of-polaroid-inventor-edwin-land-one-of-steve-jobs-biggest-heroes .

[3]  BBC News Magazine, 2013.  The Polaroid genius who re-imagined the way we take photos.  Video is available online at:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21115581 .  

[4]  Polaroid Corporation, 1970.  Edwin H. Land in “The Long Walk” (directed by Bill Warriner).  Video is available online at:  http://film.linke.rs/domaci-filmovi/edwin-h-land-in-the-long-walk-1970-directed-by-bill-warriner-for-polaroid-corporation/ .

 

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