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At UnDark: Is risk aversion ruining science?


Stony Brook astrophysicist Paul Sutter argues the case:

I’ve encountered this problem myself. Years ago, after I completed my Ph.D. in physics, I began doing postdoctoral research studying cosmic voids, the vast regions of almost nothing that dominate the volume of the universe. A few collaborators and I were using voids to understand the evolution of the cosmos, and we were also fascinated by voids as objects themselves. However, as I was applying to jobs beyond that postdoc, I was told multiple times by senior (and well-meaning) scientists that I should focus on something else. Something more mainstream. Something safer. (Today, thanks to the dogged determination of my collaborators, cosmic void analysis is now a part of most major upcoming galaxy surveys.)

My experiences were not singular. I’ve met many junior scientists who were given similar advice, and senior scientists — now that I number among their ranks — confide that their top priority is in achieving deltas: a physics jargon word that they use here to refer to tiny, incremental advances of their current research. They quietly concede that the tenure system, designed to give academics the freedom to safely explore new directions, rarely serves that purpose.

Paul Sutter, “Risk Aversion Is Ruining Science” at UnDark (April 27, 2022)

You may also wish to read: Theoretical physicist on why she stopped working on black hole information loss. Hossenfelder: …. no one can tell which solution is correct in the sense that it actually describes nature, and physicists will not agree on one anyway. Because if they did, they’d have to stop writing papers about it.

Sutter is meta-risk-averse about sources of funding. He never even mentions crowdfunding. The article is solely about dividing the shrinking federal pie. Audacious new science to SOLVE A REAL PROBLEM can be crowdfunded, with the right publicity and buzz. About 10 years ago I offered to crowdfund a young scientist who had a better solution for algae in lakes. He seemed befuddled by the idea and refused. He didn't really want to solve the problem, he wanted HIGH-STATUS federal funding that would advance his path toward tenure. http://polistrasmill.blogspot.com/2015/07/sources-and-sinks.html polistra
In Euroope there has been a push in funding agencies for riskier research, e.g. the ERC wants to see big bold proposals that will change science. I've now idea how effective this is, although it does focus your thoughts on writing a proposal that sounds big, risky, and ground-breaking. Bob O'H
Headline in New Scientist: "The W Boson is slightly heavier than we think, which could overturn our understanding of physics." No it couldn't. An indistinguishable difference in the imaginary math surrounding an imaginary "particle" that ISN'T FUCKING FOUND IN NATURE can't possibly change anything except grant proposals. When competition is down to decimal places, it's time to stop. The same thing happened in athletics. The top competitors are no longer thinking about new ways to play the game, they're just fighting to see what digit comes after 0.42563534868853634678490678940768597683257834075832 milliseconds. polistra

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