More on the Future of Science

Quotes from Price's essay are in bold italic.

In this essay called "The Future of Science" Richard Price argues that science is being slowed by the publication approval process. It's being slowed so much that

[i]f these inefficiencies can be removed, science would accelerate tremendously. A faster science would lead to faster innovation in medicine and technology. Cancer could be cured 2-3 years sooner than it otherwise would be, which would save millions of lives.

I am a bit dumbfounded. Can he be serious? I suspect that the author doesn't really know anything about how science is done.

I rebutted some of Price's claims in an essay on a similar subject in this earlier discussion.

In this new esaay, Price argues that there are two main problems with scientific publication in the present time.

1 The time-lag problem
2 The single mode of publication problem

I will tackle the second point first since it is the easiest to refute. There is not currently a single mode of publication. There is a single channel, peer-review, for scientists to get their research approved by the community at large but scientists share their ideas in many ways now. They publish peer reviewed papers, they collaborate across institutions, countries and disciplines, they walk down the hall to the coffee room and talk about their research with colleagues at their institutions, they present their research at small and large conferences, some discuss their research online.

I suspect that if there is a real problem with the current ways of sharing research it is that some are completely outside of a particular research community because they are new to the research (there's a barrier of knowledge) or they are from a different country than the dominant research community (a barrier of language or politics) or they are from a different culture (barrier of political or social issues). None of these problems are eliminated by providing more channels for research to spread out because none of the real problems affecting these kinds of isolated researchers are related to having a single channel for promulgating research. In the case of the isolated researcher the problem is with penetrating the existing community not broadcasting results. In fact, the best way for a new researcher to make sure that their research is seen by the best people in their chosen field is to submit their paper to peer review. So I just don't see how avoiding showing research to key members of a research community will help science. And avoiding peer review by recognized experts in a field is exactly what the goal of some advocates of a new form of open publishing want to do.

To be completely clear I am for open publishing where that means that access to published research that was funded by public money is completely free, gratis and libre.I think it is appalling that some private scientific publishing companies make a profit off of the public purse and I hope that the research surge in interest in stopping that kind of publishing grows further.

Let's return to the first claim, that the time it takes to pass a paper through the peer review process is limiting scientific progress. The author says several things that I believe demonstrate a real lack of understanding of the modern process of doing things scientific.

"If you read a paper, and have some thoughts about it, and write up a response, it is going to take 12 months for your response to be seen by the global scientific community."

If only it were that simple. If only my thoughts about research were enough to get me published. Unfortunately, I'm not just a thinker, I am scientist. I have to do some research, perform some experiments, build an apparatus, organise funding, wait for funding, select and train graduate students, select and train assistants, build new buildings and infrastructure, wait for my enormous pool of randomly selected human research subjects to go through the remainder of their lives so I can see if those that eat better live longer than others who don't, wait for new engineering processes to be developed by others so that the damn machine I imagine (a thought!) can be built. This idea of writing some thoughts down and publishing them is risible.

"Science is fundamentally a conversation between scientists around the world."

No, science is fundamentally a conversation between a scientist and the universe. If you ask nicely, by doing things like those listed above, you might be lucky and universe will reveal a new secret about itself. After all that, perhaps a lifetime of research, you can submit your research for peer-review. That's where the conversation with other scientists around the world takes place.

"The time-lag in the distribution of scientific ideas is significantly holding back science. It’s critical for global progress that we work to remove this inefficiency."

I think I've made a few suggestions for other, real-world, practical problems, that might be holding back research (e.g. funding, engineering, construction, education). I will not hesitate to add, perhaps redundantly, that there does indeed remain a problem of thinking. You need to think of some new way to probe at the soft underbelly of the universe if you hope to expose something new. This last point is tricky because no one has ever figured out how to speed this step up or even if it can be sped up. Sometimes we just have to wait for that one person to have that one insight. Nothing is going to change that (until perhaps automation of brute force trial and error methods can simply try every possibility for a, say, pharmaceutical product or chemical reaction--but that isn't going to work in all kinds of research).

Price writes next about the way that the web can provide instant communication and distribution as if this is 1995.

"In 5-10 years’ time, the way scientists will communicate will be unrecognizable from the way that they have been communicating for the last 400 years"

It's hard to imagine a scientist that isn't aware of the internet (it is in fact completely impossible to imagine such an imaginary creature) and isn't already making use of it. I am only a minor cog in a vast machine (climate modelling) and I am aware of how this works. Of course, I also lived through the 1990's.

"One of the reasons that technological progress in the 20th century was so much greater than growth in previous centuries is that there were so many powerful communication technologies invented in the 20th century that connected people around the globe: the telephone, the TV, the internet."

I doubt this is the case. The real reason why so much progress has been made is because so much progress was made before. Every new discovery depends on previous discoveries. The whole system grows up from the base in an exponential way. The new connections we can make use of now are just one part of the technology science can now make use of. 19th century scientists could make use of trains and the telegraph among other things and to them these new ways to communicate were just as astonishing as anything we have come up with lately. I'm sure that taken all together the rate of change of technology was just as exponential then.

I'm going to skip the next section of Price's essay. Basically it's the interesting bits from the internet of the 1990's. Hyperlinks!

The next bit about peer review is interesting because peer review is the essential feature of the scientific publishing system.

(My earlier response went into a lot more detail about the ways that Price doesn't seem to understand peer review. )

"... scientific content will increasingly be evaluated according to the kinds of metrics that reflect the success of a piece of content on the web."

I wish I could start my sentence with an exclamation point! Science is only evaluated by one standard. Does it work? That's the standard. That's it. There's nothing else. You don't get any points for being popular online. Clicking a Like button won't change the value of a universal constant so that your pet version of a new theory suddenly make sense. A billion popular YouTube videos won't make chemtrails real.

Science and technology are fundamental to our societies, to our civilisation. I think that on this point Richard Price and I completely agree. There are drawbacks to science and technology but the benefits have indeed been amazing, vital and crucial to our modern societies (which suggests the real problem that open publishing and web might help with, spreading knowledge to those remaining human societies that have been left behind).

"As the extraordinary Silicon Valley innovation engine increasingly directs itself at transforming science, you can expect to see acceleration on a scale that science has never seen."

I think that Price doesn't really see the difference between science and technology. They aren't the same though there is a relationship between them. This is important because science and technology are fundamentally different but mutually dependent concepts. Science is a method of discovery and technology is a means to produce. Science will not advance, new things will not be discovered, without a concomitant change in technology. Science also drives new innovations in technology (as in the case where a physical phenomenon can be exploited for a process only once it is discovered and explained by science. On the other hand technology can drive new scientific discoveries (if for example, more precise technology allows for equipment that can demonstrate new phenomena). Every other possibility between the two endpoints is also possible. Incremental improvements in one can drive incremental changes in the other. So, to say that science drives innovation is not enough. Science explains phenomena and technology provides tools to exploit science. Technology gives us machines that allow us to interact with reality. Science gives us the understanding to build the machines.

"The next wave of science is not being built by scientific publishers. It is being built by engineering-focused, Silicon Valley tech companies. It is being built by talented and visionary engineering and product teams."

I think it's pretty clear that in this case the word science means technology. This is clear because programmers in silicon valley don't do science. Science just doesn't work that way.

Overall Price's message is a positive one and he's right to encourage investment in cutting edge engineering and technology. The exponential rate of discovery in science and technology will mean that more and more inventions will take the place of things that people do now. There's money to be made at that frontier that certain. Just make sure that your investment corporation pays it's fair share of taxes. All of the people that new science and technology will be putting out of work and helping to live longer at the same time may need some social assistance along the way.

[2012-04-03 Postscript] I realised that we have a fantastic example of the cross-over between science and engineering here at the University of Victoria. A new state of the art microscope is being installed here at UVic later this month. It's one of the world's most precise instruments. That's the technology part of the equation. What they'll do with it is the science. I do want to make the point though that the plans have been underway for more than three years.

Here's the information about the new facility:

Here's a press release from July 2009 announcing the new instrument (due to arrive late May 2012):

A room in the basement of the Science building here had to built from scratch including an extremely thick, isolated slab for the microscope to sit on (vibrations from the environment are bad). Parts of the building are being dismantled and then reconstructed in order to get the parts inside.

The entire project is costing millions of (grant) dollars and taking years to get underway. During that time, faculty and graduate students don't get their research done, science waits, but for technology not publishing.

[2012-05-04 Postscript 2] Science is a messy, frustrating thing to undertake but it has big rewards for everyone.

[2013-04-08] I found this interesting article about open access journals
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