Reimagining science, redux

This article on Founding Fuel has some great suggestions I thought, but it merits sharing with a couple caveats.

First, in narratives about making science “easier to do”, commentators give science-industry linkages more play than science-society ones. This has been true in the past and continues to be. We remember and periodically celebrate the work of Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar and M. Visveshwaraya, but not with nearly equal fanfare that of, say, Yash Pal or the members of the Hoshangabad Science Teaching Programme.

In public dialogues about making the work of scientists more relevant, writers and TV panellists often touch on spending more money to setup larger, better supplied labs and improving ties between the labs and industry, where research is translated into product or service. Spending more on science is necessary, as is the need to support collaborations, regularise funding and grant-giving, improve working conditions for teachers, etc.

More broadly, I acknowledge that the problem is that there isn’t enough good science happening in the country, that the author is recommending various ways in which science-industry linkages and tweaks within the science ecosystem can both change this for the better, and that science-society linkages are unlikely to be of help on this front. However, could this be because we’re asking the wrong question?

That is, what science and industry can do for each other becomes relevant if what we’re seeking is the growth of science, as defined by some parameters (number of citations, number of patents, etc.), as an enterprise in and of itself – as if its fortunes and outcomes weren’t already yoked to other societal endeavours. Growth for growth’s sake. Science-society linkages become relevant on the other hand when the parameters are, say, research and academic liberties, extent of public participation, distribution of opportunities, freedom from government interference, etc. – when quantitative growth is both difficult and more aligned with nation-building.

Ultimately, we don’t need a science that becomes easier to do at the expense of not thinking about whether it needs to be done, or done differently. This is not a veiled comment against ‘blue sky’ research, which must continue, but is directed against ‘black sky’ research – which goes on to pollute our air and water, drills forestland for oil, dams rivers and destabilises ecosystems without thought for the consequences.

Nevertheless, in a system designed increasingly to incentivise working with the private sector, to self-finance one’s work through patents and other licenses, and to translate research into arbitrarily defined “useful” things, such thinking can only become more penalised, more unfavourable. And the science that is rolled into technologies will only be industry friendly, which in the current political climate means Ambani- and/or Adani-friendly, to the detriment of everyone else, especially those on the bottom rungs of society.

Second, the article’s author uses Nobel Prize-winning work to describe presumably the extent of what is possible when faculty members at an institute work together or when researchers collaborate with their younger peers. But in the process he frames ‘collaborations that produce Nobel Prizes’ as desirable. This is a problem because doing so overlooks collaborations that didn’t win Nobel Prizes, because laureates are often white men (non-white, non-cis-men may not be able to ‘breach’ such ‘in-groups’ because of structural factors even as solutions to break these barriers are ignored in favour of a flatter ‘prize-winning’ one), and because “Nobel-Prize-winning collaborations” is an oxymoron.

The last is easiest to see: the prizes are awarded only to three people at a time whereas the author himself quotes a study that found that the number of authors per scientific paper increased from 3.2 to 4.4 in 1996-2015.

As a corrective of sorts, to infuse deliberations prompted by the Founding Fuel article with what a focus on industry-oriented development leaves out, let me quote at length from an essay Mukund Thattai published with The Wire three years ago, exploring the existence of “an Indian way of doing science” (emphases mine):

There is a strong case to fund science for the same reason we fund the arts or sport. Science is a cultural activity: it reveals unexpected beauty in the everyday; it captures the imagination of children; it attempts to answer some of humanity’s biggest questions about where we came from. Moreover, scientific ideas can be a potent component of the process by which society arrives at collective decisions about the future. Among the strongest reasons a resource-limited country such as India should fund curiosity-driven science is that the nature of future crises cannot be predicted.

It is impossible to micromanage the long-term research agenda, so the only hope is to cast a wide net. A broad and deep scientific community is a valuable resource that can be called upon to give its inputs on a variety of issues. They cannot be expected to always deliver a solution but can be expected to provide the best possible information available at any time. In this consultative process, it is crucially important to not privilege scientific experts over other participants in the discussion.

… Science thrives within a diversity of questions and methods, a diversity of institutional environments, and a diversity of personal experiences of individual scientists. In the modern era, the practice of science has moved to a more democratic mode, away from the idea of lone geniuses and towards a collective effort of creating hypotheses and sharing results. Any tendency toward uniformity and career professionalisation dilutes and ultimately destroys this diversity. As historian of science Dhruv Raina describes it, a science that is vulnerable to the “pressures of government” is “no longer an open frontier of critical activity”. Instead, science must become “social and reflexive”.

Ideas and themes must bubble up from the broadest possible community. In India, access to such a process is limited by the accident of one’s mother tongue and social class, and this must change. Anyone who wants to should have the opportunity to understand what scientists are doing. Ultimately, this must involve not only scientists but also social scientists, historians, philosophers, artists and communicators – and the public at large.

… Is there such a thing as an “Indian way” of doing science? Science in the abstract is said to transcend national boundaries. In practice it is strongly influenced by local experiences and local history. Unfortunately, even as national missions have faded to the background, they have been replaced by an imitation of Western fashions. It has become common to look to high-profile journals and conferences as arbiters of questions worth asking. This must stop. The key to revitalising Indian science is the careful choice of rich questions. These questions could be driven by new national missions that bring the excitement of a collective effort. Or they could be inspired by observing the complex interactions of the world immediately around us.

There is a great deal of scholarship and scientific inquiry that can arise from the study of India’s traditional knowledge systems. The country’s enormous biodiversity and human genetic diversity are an exciting and bottomless source of scientific puzzles and important secrets. Such questions would allow for a deeper two-way engagement with India’s people. This is not to say Indian scientists cannot work on internationally important problems – quite the opposite. The scientific community in India, working within their own unique contexts, could become the source of important problems that anyone in the world would be excited to work on.

… The internationalisation of science is an important goal in and of itself. While it stimulates cross-fertilisation of ideas and pushes up standards within science, it also creates opportunities for broader global discussions and engagements. The unfortunate hurdles which curtail the ability of Indian academics and students to travel abroad, and the enormous difficulty foreign academics face in obtaining necessary permissions to visit their colleagues in India, serve no purpose. In spite of all this, there is a healthy trend towards stronger international links.

Academic scientists have long played dual roles as teachers and researchers. Within India, science has a remarkably broad appeal. Public science talks are standing-room-only affairs, and famous scientists receive the kind of adulation typically reserved for movie stars. Students across the country are excited about science. Many aspire to become scientists themselves.

Historically, engineering and medical colleges have attracted scientifically-minded students, but this is changing. The Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research have now been running undergraduate programs for over a decade in cities across India. These institutions are to science what the IITs are to engineering, attracting some of the brightest students each year. Science programs within public universities have not fared as well, and must seize every opportunity to reinvent themselves. A science curriculum based not on dry facts but on the history and process of discovery can form the base of a broad education, in conjunction with the humanities and the arts.

The chrysalis that isn’t there

I wrote the following post while listening to this track. Perhaps you will enjoy reading it to the same sounds. Otherwise, please consider it a whimsical recommendation. 🙂

I should really start keeping a log of different stories in the news all of which point to the little-acknowledged but only-evident fact that science – like so many things, including people – does not embody lofty ideals as much as the aspirations to those ideals. Nature News reported on January 31 that “a language analysis of titles and abstracts in more than 100,000 scientific articles,” published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), had “found that papers with first and last authors who were both women were about 12% less likely than male-authored papers to include sensationalistic terms such as ‘unprecedented’, ‘novel’, ‘excellent’ or ‘remarkable’;” further, “The articles in each comparison were presumably of similar quality, but those with positive words in the title or abstract garnered 9% more citations overall.” The scientific literature, people!

Science is only as good as its exponents, and there is neither meaning nor advantage to assuming that there is such a thing as a science beyond, outside of and without these people. Doing so inflates science’s importance when it doesn’t deserve to be, and suppresses its shortcomings and prevents them from being addressed. For example, the BMJ study prima facie points to gender discrimination but it also describes a scientific literature that you will never find out is skewed, and therefore unrepresentative of reality, unless you acknowledge that it is constituted by papers authored by people of two genders, on a planet where one gender has maintained a social hegemony for millennia – much like you will never know Earth has an axis of rotation unless you are able to see its continents or make sense of its weather.

The scientific method describes a popular way to design experiments whose performance scientists can use to elucidate refined, and refinable, answers to increasingly complex questions. However, the method is an external object (of human construction) that only, and arguably asymptotically, mediates the relationship between the question and the answer. Everything that comes before the question and after the answer is mediated by a human consciousness undeniably shaped by social, cultural, economic and mental forces.

Even the industry that we associate with modern science – composed of people who trained to be scientists over at least 15 years of education, then went on to instruct and/or study in research institutes, universities and laboratories, being required to teach a fixed number of classes, publish a minimum number of papers and accrue citations, and/or produce X graduate students, while drafting proposals and applying for grants, participating in workshops and conferences, editing journals, possibly administering scientific work and consulting on policy – is steeped in human needs and aspirations, and is even designed to make room for them, but many of us non-scientists are frequently and successfully tempted to address the act of being a scientist as an act of transformation: characterised by an instant in time when a person changes into something else, a higher creature of sorts, like a larva enters a magical chrysalis and exits a butterfly.

But for a man to become a scientist has never meant the shedding of his identity or social stature; ultimately, to become a scientist is to terminate at some quasi-arbitrary moment the slow inculcation of well-founded knowledge crafted to serve a profitable industry. There is a science we know as simply the moment of discovery: it is the less problematic of the two kinds. The other, in the 21st century, is also funding, networking, negotiating, lobbying, travelling, fighting, communicating, introspecting and, inescapably, some suffering. Otherwise, scientific knowledge – one of the ultimate products of the modern scientific enterprise – wouldn’t be as well-organised, accessible and uplifting as it is today.

But it would be silly to think that in the process of constructing this world-machine of sorts, we baked in the best of us, locked out the worst of us, and threw the key away. Instead, like all human endeavour, science evolves with us. While it may from time to time present opportunities to realise one or two ideals, it remains for the most part a deep and truthful reflection of ourselves. This assertion isn’t morally polarised, however; as they say, it is what it is – and this is precisely why we must acknowledge failures in the practice of science instead of sweeping them under the rug.

One male scientist choosing more uninhibitedly to call his observation “unprecedented” than a female scientist might have been encouraged, among other things, by the peculiarities of a gendered scientific labour force and scientific enterprise, but many male scientists indulging just as freely in their evaluatory fantasies, such as they are, indicates a systemic corruption that transcends (but not escapes) science. The same goes for, as in another recent example, for the view that science is self-correcting. It is not because people are not, and they need to be pushed to be. In March 2019, for example, researchers uncovered at least 58 papers published in a six-week period whose authors had switched their desired outcomes between the start and end of their respective experiments to report positive, and to avoid reporting negative, results. When the researchers wrote to the authors as well as the editors of the journals that had published the problem papers, most of them denied there was an issue and refused to accept modifications.

Again, the scientific literature, people!

Scientism is not ‘nonsense’

The @realscientists rocur account on Twitter took a surprising turn earlier today when its current curator, Teresa Ambrosio, a chemist, tweeted the following:

If I had to give her the benefit of doubt, I’d say she was pointing this tweet at the hordes of people – especially Americans – whose conspiratorial attitude towards vaccines and immigrants is founded entirely on their personal experiences being at odds with scientific knowledge. However, Ambrosio wasn’t specific, so I asked her:

The responses to my tweet, encouraged in part by Ambrosio herself, were at first dominated by (too many) people who seemed to agree, broadly, that science is an apolitical endeavour that could be cleanly separated from the people who practice it and that science has nothing to do with the faulty application of scientific knowledge. However, the conversation rapidly turned after one of the responders called scientism “nonsense” – a stance that would rankle not just the well-informed historian of science but in fact so many people in non-developed nations where scientific knowledge is often used to legitimise statutory authority.

I recommend reading the whole conversation, especially if what you’re looking for is a good and sufficiently well-referenced summary of a) why scientism is anything but nonsense; b) why science is not apolitical; and c) how scientism is rooted in the need to separate science and the scientist.

Unseating Feynman, and Fermi

Do physicists whitewash the legacy of Enrico Fermi the same way they do Richard Feynman?

Feynman disguised his sexism as pranks and jokes, and writers have spent thousands of pages offering his virtues as a great physicist and teacher as a counterweight against his misogyny. Even his autobiography doesn’t make any attempts to disguise his attitude, but to be fair, the attitude in question became visibly problematic only in the 21st century.

This doesn’t mean nobody exalts Feynman anymore but only that such exaltation is expected to be contextualised within his overall persona.

This in turn invites us to turn the spotlight on Fermi, who would at first glance appear to be Italy’s Feynman by reputation but on deeper study seems qualified to be called one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century.

Like Feynman, Fermi made important and fundamental contributions to physics and chemistry. Like Feynman, Fermi was part of the Manhattan Project to build the bombs that politicians would eventually drop on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But unlike Feynman, Fermi’s participation in the latter extended to consultations on decisions about where to drop the bomb and when.

For us to acknowledge that we were being grossly unfair to all women when we overlooked Feynman’s transgressions, women needed to become more vocal about their rights in social and political society.

So it’s only fair to assume that at some point in the future, society’s engagement with and demands of scientists and scientific institutes to engage more actively with a country’s people and their leaders will show us how we’ve been whitewashing the legacy of Enrico Fermi – by offering his virtues as a physicist and teacher as a counterweight against his political indifference.

Many people who fled fascist regimes in 20th century Europe and came to the US, together with people who had relatives on the frontlines, supported the use of powerful weapons against the Axis powers because these people had seen firsthand what their enemies were capable of. Fermi was one such émigré – but here’s where it gets interesting.

Fermi was known to be closed-off, to be the sort of man who wouldn’t say much and kept his feelings to himself. This meant that during meetings where military leaders and scientists together assessed a potential threat from the Germans, Fermi would maintain his dispassionate visage and steer clear of embellishments. If the threat was actually severe, Fermi wouldn’t be the person of choice to convey its seriousness, at least not beyond simply laying down the facts.

This also meant that Fermi didn’t have the sort of public, emotional response people commonly associate with J. Robert Oppenheimer, Karl Darrow or Leo Szilard after the bomb was first tested. In fact, according to one very-flattering biography – by Bettina Hoerlin and Gino Segrè published in 2016 – Fermi was only interested in his experiments and was “not eager to deal with the extra complications of political or military involvement”. Gen. Leslie Groves, the leader of the Manhattan Project, reportedly said Fermi “just went along his even way, thinking of science and science only.”

But at the same time, Fermi would also advocate – against the spirit of Szilard’s famous petition – for the bomb to be dropped without prior warning on a non-military target in Japan to force the latter to surrender. How does this square with his oft-expressed belief that scientists weren’t the best people to judge how and when the bomb would have to be used to bring a swift end to the war?

Fermi’s legacy currently basks in the shadow of the persistent conviction that the conducts of science and politics are separate and that they should be kept that way. The first part of the claim is false, an untruth fabricated to keep upper-class/caste science workers from instituting reforms that would make research a more equitable enterprise; the second part is becoming more untenable but it’s taking its time.

Ultimately, the fight for a scientific enterprise founded on a more enlightened view of its place within, not adjacent to, society should also provide us a clearer view of our heroes as well as help us discover others.