Following the money….

The private money that is…going into science here in the US from very wealthy people, story here, thanks to Tyler Cowen for the link.

The question from my standpoint is–does that get us the best science? I’m not sure. My worry is that scientists taking big bucks from billionaires will tend to find they own the confirmation biases of their sponsors.

"The Rain in Spain"….FT’s Gideon Rachman on the crisis of the European Project

Gideon Rachman is one of the FT’s very best. Here’s his latest report from Spain–it’s not pretty. In the late eighties and early nineties Spain was brimming with the kind of optimism that produced a generation of extremely bright scientists…many came to the States for training at the NIH, but then returned to the mother country, believing in both the European Project and endless possibilities for innovation. I saw this excellence first hand, in Madrid, Salamanca, Alicante and Barcelona…

Sustained progress in science however requires economic stability in addition to a long term view from political leaders….

That’s a lesson that could well be learned in other places too.

The value proposition of unplanned social interactions….

The Blogosphere remains in its extended excitable state over the announcement from Yahoo’s CEO, Marissa Mayer on working from home (for background see here). The conventional wisdom on the reasoning behind her edict lies in the notion that somehow physical proximity among co-workers promotes productivity–a meme that is also central to the Bell Labs myth, recently chronicled expertly by Jon Gertner in his book, the Idea Factory: Bell Labs and The Great Age of American Innovation.

Today, this idea of a creative soup coming out of random physical human interactions was taken a step further in John Kay’s FT opinion piece, where he posits that New York City’s greatness comes as a result of the density of those human face-to-face moments.

In science, the empirical evidence does seem to support this notion of synergies arising out of researchers working closely in the same space. The entire village of Woods Hole, with its illustrious contributions to biological discovery over the last century bear witness to this idea. The Bethesda intramural campus of the National Institutes of Health and the relatively new Janelia Farm Campus of HHMI also have a similar cultural norms embedded in their scientific DNA.

And certainly the same is true for George Mason’s Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study. Our beautiful facility’s great room was designed with the goal of bringing our diverse scientific staff together. Many of the break out spaces throughout the Institute have the same idea in mind, although they are certainly less formal. The new Phase III addition of the Institute will take this notion even further.

From a theoretical standpoint, the key insights that lead to consequential scientific discovery are usually serendipitous. They arise, often not from a deductive logical progression, but rather from clues distributed like a trail of breadcrumbs. Those clues, many times, come from the laboratories of other investigators–and when those laboratories are physically close, the frequency of “clue exchange” goes way up. The analogy of genetic recombination seems particularly appropriate when thinking about the advantages of such unintended scientific sociality.

On the other hand, I am not convinced that if you build it, they will come. There needs to be a scientific culture which explicitly rewards such exchanges and both the inputs and outputs of such a scientific system need to be measured–I’m convinced this was one of Bell Lab’s secrets. Here at Krasnow, we are working to reify the reward-side of that equation.

Top down directives of the type Ms. Mayer gave at Yahoo seem to be less successful in science. At least one of our sister scientific centers existed for years with the rule that all scientific staff were required to dine with one another under the watchful eye of the famous founder. That place is now winding down with not so much to show for the luncheon kabuki theater.

Instead, what seems to work, is an enjoyable (and dense) workplace environment that allows for lots of unstructured work experimentation in combination with unstructured play. Google’s campus jumps to mind in this respect, but also too Woods Hole (again). Under these circumstances, there are lots of opportunities to sample the breadcrumbs of ones colleagues…

So to sum up: yes physical proximity is good, but only if it happens organically from the bottom up. I’m skeptical about the Yahoo story…

Yahoo ends telework as we know it…

I’ve been reading about this development all week. Today’s NYT story is here. The argument from Yahoo’s leadership is that while work-at-homers are more productive, they are less innovative.

For me, I’m less concerned about staff than science trainees. The Net and the advent of ubiquitous pdf scientific articles have in many cases ended the 24/7 laboratory culture that used to be de rigueur as a right of graduate student passage. Now the question is what is being given up? Are the new generation of science trainees as productive but less innovative because they aren’t hanging out in the lab at 2 AM?

And for those who are, are they gaining some competitive advantage?

Bipartisanship in Science…

Daniel Sarewitz’s editorial in Nature is here. I completely agree with it. Money quote:

To connect scientific advice to bipartisanship would benefit political debate. Volatile issues, such as the regulation of environmental and public-health risks, often lead to accusations of ‘junk science’ from opposing sides. Politicians would find it more difficult to attack science endorsed by avowedly bipartisan groups of scientists, and more difficult to justify their policy preferences by scientific claims that were contradicted by bipartisan panels.