Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Hysteresis in science and engineering policy

I have tried hard to avoid political tracts on this blog, because I don't think that's why people necessarily want to read here.  Political flamewars in the comments or loss of readers over differences of opinion are not outcomes I want.  The recent proposed budget from the White House, however, inspires some observations.  (I know the President's suggested budget is only the very beginning of the budgetary process, but it does tell you something about the administration priorities.)

The second law of thermodynamics tell us that some macroscopic processes tend to run only one direction.  It's easier to disperse a drop of ink in a glass of water than to somehow reconstitute the drop of ink once the glass has been stirred.  

In general, the response of a system to some input (say the response of a ferromagnet to an applied magnetic field, or the deformation of a blob of silly putty in response to an applied stress) can depend on the history of the material.  Taking the input from A to B and back to A doesn't necessarily return the system to its original state.  Cycling the input and ending up with a looping trajectory of the system in response because of that history dependence is called hysteresis.  This happens because there is some inherent time scale for the system to respond to inputs, and if it can't keep up, there is lag.

The proposed budget would make sweeping changes to programs and efforts that, in some cases, took decades to put in place.   Drastically reducing the size and scope of federal agencies is not something that can simply be undone by the next Congress or the next President.  Cutting 20% of NIH or 17% of DOE Office of Science would have ripple effects for many years, and anyone who has worked in a large institution knows that big cuts are almost never restored.   Expertise at EPA and NOAA can't just be rebuilt once eliminated.  

People can have legitimate discussions and differences of opinion about the role of the government and what it should be funding.  However, everyone should recognize that these are serious decisions, many of which are irreversible in practical terms.   Acting otherwise is irresponsible and foolish.


Anonymous said...

I guess science should be considered as a piece of the cake. When there are other more urgent and immediate social needs, how large science should be allocated of that cake certainly can be debated and possibly reduced. Personally, I -- who's is also a devoted researcher -- believe president Trump is making responsible and smart decisions. One should not ignore the fact that, lots of resources have been squandered and wasted; just look at the 70% un-reproducible results in the biomedical discipline. In the last few decades, we have produced far too many scientists and PhDs. Do we really need so many? We need somebody to do the cut. More generally, I think, academy is at a crossroad: the culture of being employed by government and funding bodies through huge funds has already destroyed too much the independence and freedom of doing research. We are nowadays driven by and hunger for funds, and our interests are then traded and forgotten and ultimately set by politics. In the short term, we may be hurt by the proposed budget cut; while in the long run, if we can restore our tradition, I believe scientists may then again be revered as 'professors' rather than 'bosses' or 'principal investigators'!

pcs said...

I appreciate the polite way you phrased your opinion on this subject that can easily get out of hand.

I do have a few questions in return that (in my opinion) cut into the validity of your arguments:
-if the argument that "lots of resources have been wasted - e.g. biomedical" is valid, shouldn't we mostly cut biomedical research instead?? Obviously no one will do that because "let's cut cancer research" won't fly. Hence, reproducibility is not a proper argument to justify cutting as it is not a proper argument to justify funding either - apparently.

-far too many PhDs. Too many for what?
Yes, not everyone with a PhD gets to be a professor. But PhDs have the potential to be very useful in the non-academic world. Hence I think educational programs need to be partly restructured to better equip PhDs with the skills to make it outside academia, but more importantly to communicate that it's okay to do so. That it's not a failure, but a perfectly defensible, and potentially smarter choice than trying to remain in academia.
Cutting research funding will cut the # of PhDs granted. In the long term, that will leave us with a smaller number of highly-educated people in both the academic world (which one could defend as you do), but also in the non-academic workforce. That is not smart for the future of our economy.

-Finally, we are a piece of the cake, yes. But if there is a budget crunch, it's much more effective to look at the big contributions to spending, not to try to reign in a irrelevantly small (order 1%) fraction of the budget - that does relatively large damage to that program, and does not deliver anything useful in cutting the overall budget.

Anonymous said...

@ pcs

Thanks for your comments.

1) I cited reproducibility in biomedical research as an example, but there are many others. I would say social sciences have the same (or even worse) problem. The main point is, there is indeed a waste of resources. We have invested far more resources than we had half a century ago but the outcomes in terms of fundamental breakthrough or real technological advancement (like the invention of transistors) seem not impressive. We now have people putting hands in every possibility, most of which are dead ends but perpetuated by funding (see the book by P W Anderson). This is bound to be the case: talented and insightful minds are admittedly minority and the rest are fumbling in every pocket. My suggestion is, reduce the funding but keep the best minds. Look, these minds do not care that much about funding. They will make breakthroughs in a free atmosphere. Let China et al. drain the inferior minds with their money !

2) It appears now widely agreed that we have far too many PhDs. If PhDs are not supposed to take professorships, why should they be trained in the first place? You argued that these PhDs could drift to other sectors and the problem is simply they do not know how to do that. However, if PhDs were intended this way, then there should be much better and more efficient ways to train them. An example is Mistuish, a Japanese car company. They indeed need lots of highly skilled workers, but look, they do not use PhDs. They train undergrads themselves. Don't you think it is more efficient? More importantly, now the cost is incurred by companies not the government, and therefore not the taxpayers.

3) This issue goes back to 1) and 2). Economically speaking, we need to cut every unnecessary budget and cultivate a more efficient and less centralized government.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 1 . This one is another Anonymous 2. If you say, funding should not follow metrics I agree. For the last two decades funds have been given based on metrics. If funds based on this false criteria is stopped I agree.

Cutting funds to EPA and almost trying to abolish this prime institution which has played a stellar role in keeping US clean is not right. Now at the crucial juncture of yes vs no debate on climate change , if you cut funds for organizations as Dough has mentioned , then further confirmations of yes or no will stop. If NIH is unwieldy , then decentralize and have small centers with few staff rather than just cut. Dough is right is saying that it is difficult to get well trained people for critical areas if one cuts and tries something new.

Anonymous 1 if you say cut funds for academics and researchers who use metrics as means to get more and moreb funds, then Anonymous 2 is with you.

Douglas Natelson said...

I'm with pcs on this. That there are far more PhDs produced than faculty jobs is only a bad thing if you operate under the assumption that all PhDs want to or should become professors. Highly credentialed and educated people underpin an enormous amount of research and technology development, production, and business outside of academia.

Regarding the idea that the pursuit of funding has destroyed the independence and freedom of scientists to do research: Hey, we all wish we didn't have to worry about resources. If there is a way to work on whatever you want without needing financial support, then by all means go for it. Even if personnel costs aren't in the mix, though, technically demanding research requires resources. A US research environment supported only by private foundations and similar sources would be far smaller than what we have now, and would look very different. You would have a tough time persuading me that would be better for the country.

Anonymous said...

But, why should one be trained in the way PhDs are trained if he does not want to become a professor anyway? At least all those I know pursuing PhDs do want to land a faculty position, and they only reluctantly leave academia. I guess most professors give lectures assuming his postgraduates will (or at least intend to) become professors. Otherwise, he would redesign his curriculum. I agree highly educated people underpin many research and technology developments outside academia, but the point is, is it necessary for these people to go through the 5-7 year PhD courses to get there? I very much doubt this.

On funding: the problem I'm picking at is not whether one should look for funding or not, but how to distribute the funding and under what circumstances should funding be sought in the first place (the example I have in mind is the atomic bomb project in 1942; for projects like this funding is obviously needed). Nowadays whether one needs funding or not, just file an application and try to get one !! Bring in money or perish. That is sad, isn't? Even worse, many (e.g. my colleagues) do not really use up the money in the supposed way, but they never return the remaining back! Rather, they 'throw it away' by random purchase. Is this not a waste?! Are you OK with this funding culture? I'm wondering what would have the funding culture become of if humans had not suffered from the world wars and the cold war.

Anonymous said...

On funding: one more thing I wish to say. In my opinion, obtaining funding has become a 'duty' forced down from university managerial staff. One to seek a funding is not directly motivated by the needs arising from his research, but more like playing a lottery game some people play on their routine to office: it does not harm to play it, and if lucky one might get something. He never minds he really needs it or not.

Douglas Natelson said...

Anon@9:21, I don't think I know any faculty who structure curriculum assuming all the doctoral students want to be professors. I tell students all the time to be aware of the realities of the faculty job market. I also don't think doctoral training is particularly structured along that assumption in the sciences - I do many many things as a faculty member that my PhD training did not address. You do raise a valid point, of course: is several years of doctoral-style technical training necessary for particular jobs? In the UK, they clearly decided that three years is enough for what they call a D Phil, and then expect additional training for certain applications. Bear in mind no one forces people to go to grad school, and that now more than ever before there is exhaustive information available at peoples' fingertips about what careers are possible for various levels of training.

Anon@9:32, I think your point of view is at odds with my experiences. I don't think I know anyone who invests time seeking funding just as a matter of routine. Much as I like writing, I would not write proposals if I didn't actually want/need the resources.

Anonymous said...

Hi Dough,

Sorry to add a few more lines, making your blog, which I enjoy reading, more like a battle field:). Hope you do not mind!

1) Surely they don't do that explicitly, but subconsciously. Maybe you do not, but many others do, I myself included. Older professors more so. Feynman even announced this in his lecture series. I think it is natural. Anyway, universities are not industries.

2) Again maybe what I said is at odds with your experiences, but definitely so with many I know. One notable example involves a tragedy: the suicide committed by a chair professor from the medical school of Imperial college London a few years back, largely because he was forced but unable to get enough grants. There are many writings on this subject. Given this, I do believe many write proposals not because they really need it, but they are forced to. Have you ever heard of Einstein writing a dozen of proposals a year in the hope of getting just one? But this seems to be the trend: the probability of getting a grant is becoming so slim and the only way to get it is to write more and more proposals. Moreover, I know professors hosting more than 20 post docs. Then, what would happen if he fails to get grants? He cannot dare fail ! So, how has it come to such a poor situation? In my opinion, we have produced far too many researchers ! You may disagree, but then what do you think is the reason? Because we have not got enough from the government? I bet, even all money were allocated to us, we might get relieved a couple of years but then revisit the same situation in the long run. Simply increasing funding does solve the issue, that is my point.

Anonymous said...

I intended to say 'Simply increasing funding does not solve the issue.', Forgot 'not' there.

gilroy0 said...

I think there's a huge difference between "undertake a careful review of agencies to reduce waste" and "slice budgets indiscriminately because you don't like what the science is telling you". I would argue the Trump budget seems much more the latter than the former. If you want to reduce waste, you should do like Willie Sutton and go where the money is -- the Department of Defense, whose waste, inefficiency, and outright corruption far dwarf anything you find in academia. Yet the Trump budget funnels tremendous new revenue that way.

So, no, I don't think evidence supports the assertion that the changes in science funding are about efficiency.

Anonymous said...

"which I enjoy reading, more like a battle field.... The best intellectual battlefield in science was between Craig Venter and others who raised their own group in pvt sector ( first at Celera Genomics, now at Venter Institute ) vs NIH group led by Frank Collins. Even though Venter is self promoting , he accelerated the work on genome sequence. There is a book " Cracking the genome" by Kevin Davies inside the race to unlock the DNA , John Hopkins University Press which gives the full account of this rivalry.