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Plan for the creation of “a network of new scientific institutes pursuing basic research while not being dependent on universities, the NIH, and the rest of traditional academia and, importantly, not being dominated culturally by academia”

Alexey Guzey is a recent college graduate from Moscow who we heard about in connection with the Why We Sleep saga. He wrote a post a couple years ago called How Life Sciences Actually Work, and some point after that he decided to create a new organization to facilitate research outside academia.

Here’s his pitch:

New Science aims to build new institutions of basic science, starting with the life sciences. Over the next several decades, New Science will create a network of new scientific institutes pursuing basic research while not being dependent on universities, the NIH, and the rest of traditional academia and, importantly, not being dominated culturally by academia. . . .

In the summer of 2022, New Science will run an in-person research fellowship in Boston for young life scientists, during which will collect preliminary data for an ambitious idea of theirs. This is inspired by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, which started as a place where leading molecular biologists came for the summer to hang out and work on random projects together . . . The plan is to gradually increase the scope of projects and the number of people funded by New Science, eventually reaching the point where there are entire labs operating outside of traditional academia and then an entire network of new scientific institutes.

I don’t really know anything about these plans, but I like Guzey’s investigation of the sleep book, and his general goals seem reasonable so I agreed to be on the board of advisers. We’ll schedule a post in a few decades—say, 14 May 2061—to see how it worked out.

10 Comments

  1. I look forward to reading the pitch/post more carefully later, but isn’t step 1 for something like this finding some very rich person to fund what will be a very expensive venture?

    In any case, I applaud the effort. Despite being fairly successful in it, my belief that the current US research system is really a mess — both wasteful and harmful — has been steadily growing. It’s perhaps not useful to give a 1-sentence statement, but my own preference would be (i) far fewer scientists, (ii) greater decoupling of science from Ph.D. production, (iii) steadier / long-term funding.

    Now back to grant writing (really).

    • Joshua says:

      > and, importantly, not being dominated culturally by academia. . . .

      I understand what it means to want to fund research outside of academia and outside the NIH, but I’m hoping someone can explain to me what it means to be “dominated culturally by academia?”

      Is it what Raghu refers to, like research being coupled to Ph.D. production? Or variable/short term funding?

      Those aspects don’t seem to me to be “culture” so I’m wondering if it has some other meaning.

      • Robert says:

        They mention another institute that eventually got absorbed into traditional academic culture, with the implication that this came with the existing negatives they are trying to avoid. I think it just means that they’re going to focus on preventing their interactions with existing academia from slowly overwhelming their core philosophy.

    • Alejandro says:

      Can you elaborate on (ii)?

      • Sure. Here’s a quickly written short version:

        A large amount of research is done at universities, by graduate students supervised by faculty, a system devised many decades ago because it offered a way to rapidly ramp up research in the US, not because it was a sustainable steady-state model. Now, we produce vast numbers of PhD students (40,000 year in STEM fields, from <30,000 20 years ago), far more than can be absorbed either by academia or by industry in positions commensurate with their skills and training. (This is field-dependent; true for Physics and Biology, probably not for CS.) Furthermore, we constantly train new people, rather than making use of the skills of those we have trained, at a great cost in time and effort. I've heard countless students wish there were more permanent staff-scientist sorts of positions that they could go into after graduating; I agree.

        Imagine instead that we trained fewer Ph.D. students, and better used the training, drive, and interest in science of those we train. This could be done if more non-university research was funded (and less at universities — even mine). In addition to being more humane, it would be better for science, and a better use of money. This isn't the complete argument, but it's some of the key points. Note that for many people, the current arrangement can work out quite well. Plus, putting a lot of effort into professional development can help. The fraction for whom it works well, though, is not large, and I think it's decreasing.

        • Rahul says:

          Excellent points!

          I think part of this is the resistance of a system to change.

          Eg no department or University actively wants to decrease the number of PhD students it produces voluntarily and constantly lobbies for more funds, grants, students etc.

          Growth is the mantra. Cuts and rebalancing never is.

          But I totally agree that we are overproducing PhDs in some areas.

          Also what about departmental rebalancing. Just as societies problems are dynamic do we see departments reduce in size and keep matched to demands?

        • jim says:

          ++10

          Too many PhDs. Absolutely. Too many people with the wrong skill sets for the work that’s available. This is arguably a major cost to the economy and to Americans’ well being as a whole, because we’re spending money money to train people than the value that’s produced by the work they ultimately perform.

          The idea of having more research jobs to utilize the skills that they obtain in getting a PhD is find. The question is how does that get funded? How does the productivity of these people generate the resources to keep funding their work?

        • Michael Nelson says:

          Devil’s advocate:

          There aren’t that many good scientists among existing PhDs, at least not in the social sciences. It’s too easy to find scientists who believe criticizing the ideas of others isn’t science, or undermines science. Too easy to find scientists who don’t value replication, rigorous methods, transparency, etc. You could argue that these traits are endemic to the academic system, but how would reducing the number of PhDs help change that? As Rahul says, systems resist change. The smaller number of PhDs produced, who find jobs in industry and other non-academic settings, would still be produced by the academic system. Decreasing PhDs by structural means, by itself, would strengthen the status quo. Perhaps what’s needed is the establishment of an alternative pipeline of scientists, technical institutions funded by industry or apprenticeships that lead directly to employment. Competition of that kind, coupled with an active and enthusiastic campaign to discourage PhD program enrollment, might create the necessary pressure for academia to change tacks.

          • CrappyScientist says:

            Too easy to find…might be your looking in the wrong places? I work with good scientists who acknowledge the political realities of funding, publishing, and carrying our science. Perhaps we should be looking at the way those factors shape our science rather than making, most likely, biased attributions of the people doing the science.

  2. MH says:

    Ugh forgot to use html for line breaks in the previous comment. Sorry!

    I hope Andrew (and others) will keep notes of his experience. I’m skeptical of the effort but it is good to see him and others put in real effort to improve the system.

    My skepticism is partly on my reaction to the tone of the post, and partly on the vagueness of the proposal. I found the tone of the post a bit overly dramatic and idealistic. Statements like “nobody cares if you’re a genius” and “senior scientists are bound by their students’ incentives” seem unlikely to come from someone who is good at organizing, which requires balancing one’s own desires to those of the group. And statements like “raising money is very difficult even for famous scientists” seem naive at best.

    The vagueness of the proposal is also a concern. Setting aside that it’s not clear whether it is even desirable to “do to science what Silicon Valley did to entrepreneurship” (more Twitterization of science, yay!), it seems to overlook a fundamental difference between basic and applied research. The whole point of basic research is that payoffs are rare and difficult to foresee, but when they do happen, benefits are diffuse and can be large. For all the merits of Silicon Valley, this is NOT what they are good at. The big difference shows up in the success metrics. For Silicon Valley, or any company, the metric is about making money. For academia it’s typically publications and perhaps patents. I have no idea what it is here.

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