by Judith Curry
Mavericks once played an essential role in research. Indeed, their work defined the 20th century.
The Guardian has an article We need more scientific mavericks, which is authored by 30 very distinguished scientists (mostly from the UK but a few from the US and Australia). Excerpts:
“Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts,” said Richard Feynman in the 1960s. But times change. Before about 1970, academics had access to modest funding they could use freely. Industry was similarly enlightened.
After 1970, politicians substantially expanded academic sectors. Peer review’s uses allowed the rise of priorities, impact etc, and is now virtually unavoidable. Applicants’ proposals must convince their peers that they serve national policies and are the best possible uses of resources. Success rates are about 25%, and strict rules govern resubmissions. Rejected proposals are usually lost. Industry too has lost its taste for the unpredictable. The 500 major discoveries, almost all initiated before about 1970, challenged mainstream science and would probably be vetoed today. Nowadays, fields where understanding is poor are usually neglected because researchers must convince experts that working in them will be beneficial.
Agencies claiming to support blue-skies research use peer review, of course, discouraging open-ended inquiries and serious challenges to prevailing orthodoxies. Mavericks once played an essential role in research. Indeed, their work defined the 20th century. We must relearn how to support them, and provide new options for an unforeseeable future, both social and economic.
JC comment: I don’t know the fields of these scientists, although a number are Nobel laureates, FRS, etc. None are climate scientists.
The Daily Caller has an article on this entitled Scientists: Government agencies use the peer review process to squash dissent. Excerpts:
Complaints that the scientific establishment is preventing dissenting voices from getting funding or published has been a major controversy among climate science. Dr. Richard Lindzen of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has argued that “global warming alarmism” has been damaged the integrity of science.
“Global climate alarmism has been costly to society, and it has the potential to be vastly more costly,” Lindzen wrote. “It has also been damaging to science, as scientists adjust both data and even theory to accommodate politically correct positions.”
“The scientific community is clearly becoming less ambiguous in separating views on warming from totally unreasonable fears for both the planet and mankind,” he added. “Environmental advocates are responding by making increasingly extreme claims. Politicians are recognizing that these claims are implausible, and are backing away from both the issue and support for climate science.”
“The incentive is then for scientists to look elsewhere for support,” Lindzen continued. “Regardless of whether this will be sufficient, one can only hope that some path will emerge that will end the present irrational obsession with climate and carbon footprints.”
Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie have an article published in the Journal of Institutional Economics entitled Garbage in, garbage out? Some micro sources of macro errors. The paper is behind paywall, but here is the text from the abstract:
Many institutions, large or small, make their decisions through some process of deliberation. Nonetheless, deliberating institutions often fail, in the sense that they make judgments that are false or that fail to take advantage of the information that their members have. Micro mistakes can lead to macro blunders or even catastrophes. There are four such failures; all of them have implication for large-scale institutions as well as small ones. (1) Sometimes the predeliberation errors of an institution’s members are amplified, not merely propagated, as a result of deliberation. (2) Institutions fall victim to cascade effects, as the initial speakers or actors are followed by their successors, who do not disclose what they know. Non-disclosure, on the part of those successors, may be a product of either informational or reputational cascades. (3) As a result of group polarization, deliberating institutions sometimes end up in a more extreme position in line with their predeliberation tendencies. Sometimes group polarization leads in desirable directions, but there is no assurance to this effect. (4) In deliberating institutions, shared information often dominates or crowds out unshared information, ensuring that institutions do not learn what their members know. Informational signals and reputational pressure help to explain all four errors. The results can be harmful to numerous institutions, including large ones, and to societies as a whole. Markets are able to correct some of these problems, but cascade effects occur there as well.
What Sunstein and Hastie describe seems very apt in terms of institutional/establishment climate science (e.g. IPCC, AAAS, RS/NAS). In their drive to develop a consensus around dangerous anthropogenic climate change, establishment climate science has failed to take advantage of knowledge from the broader community of scientists. More seriously, the process of peer review for funding and journal publication torques research in a particular direction. Hence there is unfunded and un-proposed research that could provide serious challenges to the orthodoxy of dangerous anthropogenic climate change. This is not a healthy situation.
With regards to my own evolution in terms of research funding. My government-funded research peaked during the period I was at the University of Colorado (1992-2002), when my annual research funding exceeded $1M in some years. I found myself writing proposals for research related to ‘big science’ for which there were specific calls for proposals, or submitting proposals based on research that I had already done. The struggle was to find time/resources to do the research that I really wanted to do.
While an administrator at Georgia Tech, I was provided with summer salary and a small amount of research funds. This in itself was quite liberating in terms of being able to pursue different lines of research. I collaborated with several self-funded researchers (one from Russia). Most significantly, I started a company Climate Forecast Applications Network, where I obtained some private sector funds to support research, and was able to use profits from the company to support some research. Hence at this point I feel relatively free to pursue my own research agenda.
We are also seeing the re-emergence of the so-called gentleman scientist (and of course gentlewoman scientists):
A gentleman scientist is a financially independent scientist who pursues scientific study without direct affiliation to a public institution such as a university or government-run research and development body. The expression arose in post-Renaissance Europe but became less common in the 20th century as government and private funding increased.
In the climate community, some examples are Nic Lewis, Steve McIntyre, Rud Istvan, Tony Brown, Bob Tisdale, Marcia Wyatt, and my Russian collaborator Vitaly Khvorostyanov. A few of these individuals are wealthy; others could definitely use some financial support.
And finally, while more scientific mavericks are needed, beware of the maverick-y.