Since we’ve been on a physics kick lately, you may want to scoot over and watch Peter Woit talking to Sabine Hossenfelder at bloggingheads.
Probably the most interesting part (to me, at least) is the discussion of the difference between math and physics culture. I often have a vague sense that these differences exist (mostly in ways that make me happy that I stayed in mathematics), but often wonder whether I am making them up. Well, one data point in my favor.
I’d also like to riff a little bit on the issues brought up by Sabine. I hadn’t encountered her previously (and I bet a lot of you haven’t). For reference, she is a physics postdoc at Perimeter, who blogs at Backreaction. She has some pretty strong words for the academic community as a whole, and how it directs research.
I agree with her about some of the problems, and some of our differences are in part because of math/physics cultural difference (for example, postdocs being tied to specific projects isn’t a real problem in mathematics, AFAIK, and mathematicians seem to feel less pressure to work on the flavor of the month). At the same time, I feel like she keeps skirting around a couple of very simple points: money and time (I’ll say beforehand, I’m mostly addressing this post. If Sabine made these points somewhere in her archives, that’s fine. This post is not intended as a criticism, just a few of my own thoughts on the subject).
First, money. She says academics shouldn’t be under so much pressure to publish (or to produce research by whatever metric) on short time scales, and should be funded for longer periods. Now, maybe I’m oversimplifying, but I would say the current pressure to publish stems from the mismatch between the supply and demand for physicists and academics in general. It’s an arms race, because no matter how much research you do, there is always somebody who published more who might take your job. There’s never going to stop being an arms race of one sort or another until supply and demand are brought back into line. You can change who has an advantage in this race, by moving the goalposts, but you can’t get rid of it.
The only way out I can see is increasing demand by putting more money into science (probably from government sources, though private funding is starting to make itself visible), or reducing supply by concentrating our current funding on fewer people, earlier on, thus forcing the others out of the field (or hopefully, directing them into some kind of non-academic employment). Both of these are reasonable suggestions (I really think the US could benefit a lot in the long term by implementing the former. Write your congresscritter!), but neither will be an easy sell.
(An interesting side point: why should it be more expensive to fund people for longer? I mean, giving 5-year grants shouldn’t be more expensive than giving the same people 1-year ones. I think the problem is that this ignores people leaving academia. More concretely, if there are X new Ph.D.’s and Y tenure track jobs, and it takes you 5 years to go from one to the other, it costs as much to give (X+Y)/2 of them 5 year posdocs as it does to start by giving them all 1-year postdocs, and culling out (X-Y)/5 of them each year. Of course, this is a horrifyingly reductive model, but I think makes it clear where the expense comes in.)
The second is time, specifically the huge amount of time involved in trying to evaluate research. She says straight up that we should stop using “shortcuts” to evaluate people’s research, and just judge it on its “quality.” Maybe I’m just being too cynical, but I think that’s just too much to expect. Consider the numbers: one colleague of mine at a respectable, but not extremely prestigious state university (a “Group II” department, according to the AMS) told me that they received 800 applications for a tenure-track position, and another told me that at a similar university told me they received 300 for a postdoc. No one is assiduous enough to read the reseach of that many people; it’s simply not practible. That’s a full time job itself.
But there’s a deeper problem here: people cannot be relied on to make unbiased judgements about other people’s research. Repeat after me: no one is objective. If hiring decisions are made based on whose research is “more creative,” on who seems smarter, with no reference to hard (if unfair) metrics like publications or teaching evaluations (not that I’m endorsing these without reservation; keep reading), this just tilts the playing field more toward the well-connected, the people with good references, (and probably away from women and minorities, given people’s habits of making unfair snap judgements against them). Obviously, I’m no fan of our current publication system, but giving people from the periphery a chance to credential themselves is very important.
So, let’s be honest with ourselves; all hiring and funding decisions are going to be made based on shortcuts of one sort or another, and trying to sweep that under the rug probably just means using weirder and less fair shortcuts. I think as a community, we need to think hard and have a serious conversation about which metrics will be most fair to people. I don’t have any easy answers, and it won’t be a pleasant conversation, necessarily, but it’ll be a lot more productive than looking for some kind of fake objectivity.