Slow Science; The road back to true science?

I was planning to write a blog entry on "Science 2.0". Increasingly, scientists make use of blogs to communicate about their research, in addition to traditional forms of publishing. I think this is really a positive sign in the sense that it may indicate a move back to more open scientific debates. I intended to discuss how science may have to change its trades in the sense that over the past 40 to 50 years, the scientific debate has made way for a competitive trade of producing ever more papers and even more citations to one's work. Meanwhile, the focus on measuring scientific production instead of fostering scientific debate has produced several, documented, negative side-effects. Sure! Quality of academic research is an issue, but reducing it to paper-counting is likely not to be the answer. What is known as bean-counting in industry has been supplemented by paper-counting in academia.

That was my plan. But then, I wrote my two previous entries on From "think-unless" to "act-unless" and Time for a new renaissance? This triggered me to rethink. I still feel a shift to more open scientific debate away from paper-counting, but i think the damage done by the paper-counting has a deeper origin.

It might be different in other scientific fields, so I can only focus on the field I'm most familiar with: (computerised) information systems engineering and enterprise engineering. Within these fields, I do think that the strong focus on the numbers game, has resulted in a focus on act rather than think, or to be more precise publish-fast rather than observe-think-debate-experience-debate-think-debate-publish. The result of this is that there has been a shift in attitude. Conference visits are not about scientific debate anymore, but about the citation index of the proceedings and getting people to cite your work. Not necessarily bad things but if they replace the scientific debate, then it is worse than a bad thing.

In line with the previous two postings, I would like to argue that we need a shift towards slow science, taking more time for think-debate-experience-debate-reflect-debate-publish. In retrospect this has been one of my core drivers to move back from a full-time position in academia to a combination between academia and industry. For my type of research I really need a lot of debate with practitioners, experiments, et cetera. However, it tends to take a long time to really learn about the fundamental problems of enterprise and information systems engineering in practice. This does not always lead to publishable papers. Even more, actually wanting to publish at that stage is actually a sign of the publish-fast problem. It would be better to be able to have open debates about preliminary thoughts and insights, for example using a blog. The result is, however, that it will take a lot of "non productive" time, in terms of paper count, before actually reaching the point of being able to publish results.

Another negative consequence of the number game, or paper counting, is what one of my former colleagues (Hans Bossenbroek) used to refer to as "scientists walk backwards towards the future". Formulating innovative research ideas and research proposals is hampered because scientists are required to show a track record in the specific field. Of course in terms of publications. As a direct consequence, one can only move forward based on past results and not leap ahead to novel ideas and concepts.

To me these observations are one of the key drivers for moving to a situation where I can combine work in industry with work in academia.

Comments

  1. I would very strongly agree.

    I've been nibbling at the same question from a somewhat different angle, looking at the processes of how science itself develops. Two of my favourite books in this would be Beveridge's "The Art of Scientific Investigation") and Feyerabend's "Against Method". Beveridge, for example, talks about the use of chance, the use of intuition, the hazards and limitations of reason; and Feyerabend takes an anarchist-style view: "the only true principle in any science is 'anything goes'".

    My main research area - pragmatic, not academic - is the development of awareness and judgement within skills. The test-case I've used for many years is dowsing ('wichelen' in Nederlands, I think?), as it's very close to a 'pure skill': the practical knowledge needed can be picked up in a couple of minutes, whilst all of the rest is about development of awareness and judgement.

    A few months back, working with an archaeologist colleague, I wrote a book called "Disciplines of Dowsing" - see http://tetradianbooks.com/2008/09/disciplines/ - which uses the core idea of four modes or 'disciplines' which need to be melded into a unified whole: referred to as Artist, Mystic, Scientists and Magician (or Technologist, if you prefer - they're actually the same thing :-) ), they align well with the Cynefin framework's domains of Chaotic (principle-based decision-making), Known (rule-based), Knowable (analytic) and Complex (emergent). We're currently working on another version specifically for archaeologists, as they're just starting to tackle the subjective domains again in their work.

    But the same principles - see the summary-sheet at http://tetradianbooks.com/2008/09/disciplines-ref/ - should apply equally well in any science. The US-style 'act, then think' you describe above matches closely with what happens when there's an over-emphasis on the Artist mode (Cynefin 'act / sense /respond'); the Rhineland style perhaps overemphasises the Scientist (Cynefin: 'sense / analyse / respond') whilst the French style is perhaps stuck somewhere between there and the Mystic (theory matters far more than reality! :-) ).

    Something else to add to the meeting-agenda for later this week, perhaps?

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  2. Anonymous7/4/09 23:25

    Correspondence

    Nature 443, 271 (21 September 2006) | doi:10.1038/443271e; Published online 20 September 2006
    Taking time to savour the rewards of slow science

    Lisa Alleva(1)

    1. School of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, The Australian National University, Canberra, ACT 0200, Australia

    Sir:

    As an older, experienced, part-time postdoctoral fellow, I have observed a trend amongst my younger, more vigorous colleagues to experiment themselves into oblivion. Following the lead of the 'slow food' movement, I suggest we adopt a philosophy of 'slow science' to address this issue, which I believe is damaging the very basis of scientific enquiry.

    My personal choice has been to accept the here and now — I am here, making history, so why not enjoy this journey? I may not be here in six months, twelve months, two years, but I am not going to work 100 hours a week to try to attain the elusive goals of my own grant, my own lab, perhaps even tenure.

    In shedding the ambition of my peers, I have discovered a secret: science, slow science, is perhaps the most rewarding and pleasurable pastime one could ever hope for. My supervisor's lab is small — two postdocs only, with no teaching responsibilities. We are free to read the literature, formulate ideas and carefully plan our experiments so as to execute thoughtful strategies. We do not plough through genomes hoping to discover something interesting; we formulate a theory, and then we go in and test it.

    Perhaps we are old-fashioned, but I feel my education as a scientist has benefited far more from my five years of slow science than the preceding five years of fast science. What's more, we are on the brink of something big, exciting and wonderful, that spurs my slow science forever onwards.

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