Is the profession of science broken (a possible cause of the great stagnation)?

The rate of technological progress has slowed, broadly speaking since the 1960’s. The most commonly cited example is the speed of flight. The astronauts of Apollo 10 traveled at 25,000 in 1969, the same year the first and only successful supersonic commercial airliner flew. Now we have neither.

Worse there are indications that the basic machinery of science has decayed. In recent years scientists have become aware that a too-large fraction of research studies fail when others attempt to replicate them (see this in the Economist). Confirming the rot are the increasing number of retractions, including some of high-profile papers (see this in the NYT).

These might be symptoms of deeper structural problems in the vast science research apparatus that’s grown in the US since WW2. The best analysis I’ve seen in this from the always-interesting The Baffler. Here is an excerpt; it should be read in full (I recommend subscribing).

The Baffler #19


Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit

By David Graeber
Prof Anthropology, London School of Economics (Wikipedia bio)

The Baffler, issue #19 (2012)
“The journal that blunts the cutting edge”


What has changed is the bureaucratic culture. The increasing interpenetration of government, university, and private firms has led everyone to adopt the language, sensibilities, and organizational forms that originated in the corporate world. Although this might have helped in creating marketable products, since that is what corporate bureaucracies are designed to do, in terms of fostering original research, the results have been catastrophic.

My own knowledge comes from universities, both in the United States and Britain. In both countries, the last thirty years have seen a veritable explosion of the proportion of working hours spent on administrative tasks at the expense of pretty much everything else. In my own university, for instance, we have more administrators than faculty members, and the faculty members, too, are expected to spend at least as much time on administration as on teaching and research combined. The same is true, more or less, at universities worldwide.

The growth of administrative work has directly resulted from introducing corporate management techniques. Invariably, these are justified as ways of increasing efficiency and introducing competition at every level. What they end up meaning in practice is that everyone winds up spending most of their time trying to sell things: grant proposals; book proposals; assessments of students’ jobs and grant applications; assessments of our colleagues; prospectuses for new interdisciplinary majors; institutes; conference workshops; universities themselves (which have now become brands to be marketed to prospective students or contributors); and so on.


DY100: late 1990s space freighter, from Star Trek

As marketing overwhelms university life, it generates documents about fostering imagination and creativity that might just as well have been designed to strangle imagination and creativity in the cradle. No major new works of social theory have emerged in the United States in the last thirty years. We have been reduced to the equivalent of medieval scholastics, writing endless annotations of French theory from the seventies, despite the guilty awareness that if new incarnations of Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, or Pierre Bourdieu were to appear in the academy today, we would deny them tenure.

There was a time when academia was society’s refuge for the eccentric, brilliant, and impractical. No longer. It is now the domain of professional self-marketers. As a result, in one of the most bizarre fits of social self-destructiveness in history, we seem to have decided we have no place for our eccentric, brilliant, and impractical citizens. Most languish in their mothers’ basements, at best making the occasional, acute intervention on the Internet.

If all this is true in the social sciences, where research is still carried out with minimal overhead largely by individuals, one can imagine how much worse it is for astrophysicists. And, indeed, one astrophysicist, Jonathan Katz {Prof Physics, Washington U at St. Louis}, has recently warned students pondering a career in the sciences. Even if you do emerge from the usual decade-long period languishing as someone else’s flunky, he says, you can expect your best ideas to be stymied at every point:

You will spend your time writing proposals rather than doing research. Worse, because your proposals are judged by your competitors, you cannot follow your curiosity, but must spend your effort and talents on anticipating and deflecting criticism rather than on solving the important scientific problems. . . . It is proverbial that original ideas are the kiss of death for a proposal, because they have not yet been proved to work.  {From “Don’t become a scientist“, 13 May 1999}

That pretty much answers the question of why we don’t have teleportation devices or antigravity shoes. Common sense suggests that if you want to maximize scientific creativity, you find some bright people, give them the resources they need to pursue whatever idea comes into their heads, and then leave them alone. Most will turn up nothing, but one or two may well discover something. But if you want to minimize the possibility of unexpected breakthroughs, tell those same people they will receive no resources at all unless they spend the bulk of their time competing against each other to convince you they know in advance what they are going to discover.


Clashing visions of the future

Still No Flying Cars? Debating Technology’s Future“, New York Times, 21 September 2014 — “Peter Thiel and David Graeber Debate Technology’s Future”

About The Baffler (from their About page)

The Baffler, est. 1988, is a printed and digital magazine of art and criticism appearing three times annually — spring, summer, and fall. They’re headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts; distributed by MIT Press.

They’re owned by the tax-deductible Baffler Foundation Inc., which is as charitable as a church, and a whole lot more fun. This foundation means they rely on your donations and subscriptions rather than chasing advertising.

Click on over and look at their daily blog.

For More Information

(a)  For an alternative scenario see The 3rd Industrial Revolution has begun.

(b)  About the slowdown in progress:

  1. Let us light a candle while we walk, lest we fear what lies ahead, 10 February 2008 — Compare the changes seen by Bat Masterson (1853-1921) with those in our lifetimes.
  2. Good news: The Singularity is coming (again), 8 December 2007
  3. The Singularity is in our past, 29 March 2009
  4. Has America grown old, and can no longer grow? Or are wonders like the singularity in our future?, 28 August 2012
  5. Why America’s growth is slowing, and a solution, 28 January 2013 — Transport June Cleaver from her 1957 home to today’s equivalent; she’d be astonished at our lack of progress.  Look at how we’ve underperformed futurist Herman Kahn’s 1967 expectations for the year 2000.
  6. Ben Bernanke sees the great slowdown in technological progress, 20 May 2013
  7. Larry Summers gives us the bad news. Worse, the only solution is more of the same., 20 November 2013
  8. Looking at America’s future: economic stagnation, or will computers take our jobs?, 7 January 2014



25 thoughts on “Is the profession of science broken (a possible cause of the great stagnation)?”

  1. 100 or so years ago Thomas Edison could do original work in his garage with a couple of helpers. Now it takes a huge budget and a lab full of people to produce incremental results. It’s really diminishing returns.

    1. dashui,

      Innovation was done in garages in Edison’s day, in 1940 at the Hewlett-Packard garage, and today. But neither then nor now was it the primary source. The great r&d facilities of Carnegie Steel produced a stream of innovations in the late 1880s.

      While Edison did much of his early work alone, in 1887 he built the “the innovation factory”, a large (for its day) complex of buildings — chemistry, physics, and metallurgy laboratories; machine shop; pattern shop; research library; and buildings for experiments — where they could invent “useful things every man, woman, and child in the world wants…at a price they could afford to pay”.

      1. DaShui,

        I pointed out that Edison had a large establishment — staff and facilities — for his time. But your example of Bell Labs knocks that ball out of the field.

        More broadly, look at how much innovation since the 1930s came from corporate, government, or university facilities.

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  3. I was a research scientist and professor in astronomy at a large, but not elite) university. During the period from 1990 to 2010 the percentage of funded applications went from about 30% to 10% (which means that basically only “insiders got funded).

  4. Indeed, well said. Part of this may well be diminishing returns: many (not all, but many) of the discoveries that can be made with a single person and simple hand tools have already been made: future discoveries will be more expensive and slower and require large teams.

    But a lot of this is the increasing competition for jobs, due both to outsourcing and cheap-labor immigration policies. Competition for jobs and grants etc. is so ridiculously high, that even the smartest have little chance of making it if they play by the rules. When people can’t survive playing it honest, eventually they stop playing honest. That’s why third-world countries are so overwhelmed with nepotism and corruption: when doing the right thing means you starve, nobody other than the occasional saint will do the right thing.

    In early Medieval europe there were more people than land, and although landowners could live like kings, most workers were crushed into subsistence and the overall society was stagnant and corrupt. The Black Death knocked the population down and held it there for generations: the average person now had more resources, and could experiment without fear of starvation if it didn’t work out, and not have to kiss the feet of the nobility, and society took off. Although landed gentry did very poorly, and many large estates collapsed for want of cheap labor.

    Bottom line: what we are seeing in science is going on in all of society. The rich are pushing to maximize population growth to end a ‘shortage’ of low-wage workers. This will also destroy the integrity on which science (and so much else) depends.

  5. Unlike the 1950s and 1960s it is well known you get tenure today by becoming a protege of some senior faculty member then funneling your grants into their research. Your work will be some hybrid of their work and some incrementally new science. I’ve witnessed a scientific aristocracy arise over the last few decades. You talk of genius? Genius introverts would not understand the time it takes politic and warp their science to already completed studies. It makes no sense if you’re interested in big ideas.
    What’s more many faculty today are the sons and daughters of the existing faculty elite. Kind of limits the gene pool there . And you forget the cultural bias that has arisen. On the graduate level universities actively recruit any warm body to teach their classes. No need to make their programs competitive or even provide a living wage when there is an infinite pool of chinese and Indians to fill up the programs. I’m sorry but Chinese and Koreans are rewarded in their native cultures by kow-towing to the status quo, not being innovative (the reason why their civilizations languished in a technological abyss for thousands of years).

    Good article by it just scratches the surface. I’ve seen far too many half-wits with good connections get tenure to believe the current system can be saved. Killing off tenure is the only real solution as modern science resembles a country club for the 1%.

    1. Herman,

      Thank you for your comment! Can you refer us to any articles about these problems? Here are a few about compensation of adjuncts, the cutting edge of collapse in academia — and rebuttal to the “more education is the answer to low wages” theory:

      From graduate school to welfare, Chronicle of Higher Education, 6 May 2012

      “Why So Many Ph.D.s Are On Food Stamps”, NPR, 15 May 2012

      “Professors in homeless shelters: It is time to talk seriously about adjuncts”, Salon, 17 March 2014 — “Adjunct abuse is one of higher education’s great sins. So why is a leading writing conference not discussing it?”

      “Professors on food stamps: The shocking true story of academia in 2014
      Forget minimum wage, some adjunct professors say they’re making 50 cents an hour. Wait till you read these stories”, Salon, 21 September 2014

  6. Also, things like deep learning would have more value for society in general and develop faster in an open university environment compared to the behind the doors development at places like Google.

  7. This may seem a little off topic since I am not an academic. This conversation resonates because of my manufacturing background. Outsourcing manufacturing, but keeping (what little) research stateside has proven a disaster. The history of industrial innovation is directly related to the feedback from the floor to the engineers. Once the organizational communication is severed r&d suffers.

    On another point. I find it ironic that while “Innovation” suffers from the list of impediments mentioned in this blog, another form of “Innovation” (sorry I hate that word) takes hold of the public imagination as Makers and Hackers gain media attention. Even kitchen table DIY bio-tech! What to make of this?

    On the level of small biz, hackerism etc., a social organization has emerged recently – The Hub. This is a place where individuals, while developing their own projects, have the opportunity to collaborate with others. A step beyond that are industrial r&d hubs where small companies can share a space and other resources. These are pretty common all across the US in major urban areas. In fact a hot item for real estate promoters.

    Given this development, what would it take to create a scientific hub? It would need foundation, non-profit funding (already a problem) but it would have the advantage of freedom from the clutches of university/venture capital corruption and exploitation.

    My final point… and this may really ruffle feathers! Graeber is an advocate of Basic Income Guarateed BIG which would provide an income to all and finally separate the nonsense that jobs (which are scarce in an otherwise abundant economy) can support us. WIth a modest income to provide security, researchers could begin to pursue a project, could – again by collaborating with peers (and a Science Hub) – have a chance to realize their research interests. Just some ideas, on the utopian side. :)

    1. Bernard,

      Thank you for raising these interesting points.

      The basic income has long been a staple of science fiction, looking at a world of great abundance when bookkeeping for basic income and shelter isn’t worth the effort. What creativity and innovations might this unleash if even a tiny fraction of the new leisure class put their free time to work?

      You might find of interest posts about the early phase of this evolution: about the 3rd industrial revolution, now starting.

  8. Comment posted at Naked Capitalism:


    The Physicist Lee Smolin in his book The Trouble with Physics said that the system in his discipline was broken for several reasons, most prominent being the fetishizing of mathematical skills over imagination, instincts for the spacial/physical, and philosophical insight.

    He said that Ph.D. advisors look for quick, brilliant number-crunchers to help them with their own work and ignore all other skills and abilities in favor of recruiting and retaining mathematical savants. This just reinforces the obsession with incredibly abstract and perhaps unprovable (but mathematically beautiful) ideas like String Theory, which has become a dogma, the only “respectable” thing to study and work on in the elite graduate programs.

    Since all the really “top” people want to do High Energy Physics (or Cosmology, i.e. Inflation and its permutations), and there is scant new data being produced by a tiny number of cutting edge supercolliders, they have largely cut loose from experimental data into the wild, wild world of mathematical abstractions. Everyone in the field is happy and nothing practical gets produced.

  9. Comment posted at Naked Capitalism:


    Philip Mirowski’s Science-Mart: Privatizing American Science (2011) guides us through the re-engineering of science and academics by our good friends in the Neoliberal Thought Collective.

    Perhaps you will remember the neoliberal pitch: massively reduced time to market for fabulous “innovations,” along with luxuriant revenue streams for universities and the entrepreneurs who would run them. What has been delivered by this regime has been what Mirowski calls the “qualitative degradation in the character of the knowledge produced” in the guise of more and more patents of less and less worth, guarded and promulgated by swat teams of intellectual property lawyers. (The appearance of these latter suggest a way in which you can begin to see the answer to the question of how what looks like a clusterf*k to most folks looks like a very successful exercise in monetization to others.)

  10. Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg

    There is also the phenomenon of dogmatism such as the kind that led to the really vicious attacks on people like Rupert Sheldrake. If a trained and hitherto very dependably orthodox scientist questions some first principles, they get the Spanish Inquisition.

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  13. When you sit back and look at this process, the result is a large and brittle structure and we know how that eventually plays out.
    I’ve spent some decades following basic physics and cosmology and first began to realize just how far off the tracks it had gone by the late eighties. It occurred to me that much of what is actually observed could be explained as a cosmic convection cycle of expanding radiation/energy and contracting mass/ structure. What falls into galaxies is balanced by what expands between them. I also realized no one was going to pay attention to this observation. To make a long story short, it is finally looking like serious holes are starting to appear in this fabrication, especially with this recent news story;
    Same article in physorg;

    Rethinking the origins of the universe
    Black holes have long captured the public imagination and been the subject of popular culture, from Star Trek to Hollywood. They are the ultimate unknown – the blackest and most dense objects in the universe that do not even let light escape.

    And as if they weren’t bizarre enough to begin with, now add this to the mix: they don’t exist.

    By merging two seemingly conflicting theories, Laura Mersini-Houghton, a physics professor at UNC-Chapel Hill in the College of Arts and Sciences, has proven, mathematically, that black holes can never come into being in the first place. The work not only forces scientists to reimagine the fabric of space-time, but also rethink the origins of the universe.

    “I’m still not over the shock,” said Mersini-Houghton. “We’ve been studying this problem for a more than 50 years and this solution gives us a lot to think about.”

    For decades, black holes were thought to form when a massive star collapses under its own gravity to a single point in space – imagine the Earth being squished into a ball the size of a peanut – called a singularity. So the story went, an invisible membrane known as the event horizon surrounds the singularity and crossing this horizon means that you could never cross back. It’s the point where a black hole’s gravitational pull is so strong that nothing can escape it.

    The reason black holes are so bizarre is that it pits two fundamental theories of the universe against each other. Einstein’s theory of gravity predicts the formation of black holes but a fundamental law of quantum theory states that no information from the universe can ever disappear. Efforts to combine these two theories lead to mathematical nonsense, and became known as the information loss paradox.

    In 1974, Stephen Hawking used quantum mechanics to show that black holes emit radiation. Since then, scientists have detected fingerprints in the cosmos that are consistent with this radiation, identifying an ever-increasing list of the universe’s black holes.

    But now Mersini-Houghton describes an entirely new scenario. She and Hawking both agree that as a star collapses under its own gravity, it produces Hawking radiation. However, in her new work, Mersini-Houghton shows that by giving off this radiation, the star also sheds mass. So much so that as it shrinks it no longer has the density to become a black hole.

    Before a black hole can form, the dying star swells one last time and then explodes. A singularity never forms and neither does an event horizon. The take home message of her work is clear: there is no such thing as a black hole.

    The paper, which was recently submitted to ArXiv, an online repository of physics papers that is not peer-reviewed, offers exact numerical solutions to this problem and was done in collaboration with Harald Peiffer, an expert on numerical relativity at the University of Toronto. An earlier paper, by Mersini-Houghton, originally submitted to ArXiv in June, was published in the journal Physics Letters B, and offers approximate solutions to the problem.

    Experimental evidence may one day provide physical proof as to whether or not black holes exist in the universe. But for now, Mersini-Houghton says the mathematics are conclusive.

    Many physicists and astronomers believe that our universe originated from a singularity that began expanding with the Big Bang. However, if singularities do not exist, then physicists have to rethink their ideas of the Big Bang and whether it ever happened.

    “Physicists have been trying to merge these two theories – Einstein’s theory of gravity and quantum mechanics – for decades, but this scenario brings these two theories together, into harmony,” said Mersini-Houghton. “And that’s a big deal.”

    Mersini-Houghton’s ArXiv papers:

    Approximate solutions:

    Exact solutions:

    By Thania Benios, Office of Communications and Public Affairs

    Published September 23, 2014

  14. ‘re: Merryman’s. Comment. There is a lot of evidence for both star-sized and galaxy-sized black holes from the motion from the motions of nearby stars. (Eg cyg x1 and the center of M87). There is no known object that has that much density.

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