Sydney Brenner on science

Scientific institutions and risk in science.


Sriram sent a bunch of us an interview with Sydney Brenner,one of the discoverers of mRNA. In the broad-ranging interview, Brenner talks about the thrill of making a scientific discovery and the joy of seeing your predictions come true. He talks about how institutions of science are run today and how they might be made better. The entire interview is well worth the read, whether or not you in the end agree with what is being said.

Of interest to me, since this is relevant to what I said about graduate school the last time, is Brenner’s take on taking risks in academic research. In fact, his idea of institutionalising risk, and I’ll say more of why I call it this, reminds me of something that’s said of/to drivers in formula one–somebody who doesn’t once in a while walk back to the pits with the steering wheel in his hands simply isn’t trying hard enough.

Batting for unconventional thinking in science isn’t new. In as much as economics is a science, Paul Krugman’s views on how to do economics better are in the same vein. Brenner says we must stop scientific research from becoming the gigantic machine that makes cogs of graduate students, both by protecting them from financial hardship, and by encouraging independent thought. I wrote the last time about how the Indian research establishment is willy-nilly doing this.

The interviewer also mentions something else that is now disturbingly common: the increasing use of adjunct faculty members, who, even after teaching courses for decades at the same college, are paid little money and have no job security.Several Indian universities do the same thing with adjunct members of teaching faculty as American universities. Government-aided colleges in Karnataka that teach basic science and arts undergraduate colleges haven’t hired permanent members of faculty for something like 25 years. And privately run colleges find it easier to just hire temporary teachers and pay them a pittance.

Brenner also talks fondly of the college system of Oxford and Cambridge and how it allows not only people from different scientific disciplines, but people from different disciplines to sit at the same table. This again is sadly something we haven’t got right. The best institutions in the country focus more and more on smaller and smaller scientific disciplines; science isn’t for us, it seems, to be polluted by mixture with the social sciences or, god forbid, the humanities.

Brenner’s idea of a “Casino Fund” in science — i.e. money that the institutions funding science should allocate for long-shot ideas and basically write it off — is a way of making risk a part of the firmware of science and its institutions. We should allocate a small fraction of all funding and give it to people with a proven record of gambling successfully, he says; this is the only way to ensure that the big risky ideas that might revolutionise science see the light of day. But not everybody agrees. Were the 1950s a golden age for science? A lot of good work was done. But we also know that the 1950s weren’t at all a good time for women in science.

Entirely aware that the extent of my expertise at running an institution of science is to have managed somehow to keep my PhD work afloat, may I venture that perhaps a better implementation of Brenner’s idea of institutionalising risk is to make sure that institutions of science are inclusive? I put it to you that it’s a greater, to say nothing of nobler, risk to take to ensure that science is inclusive. Scientists, being human beings, are products of their time. Could there be anything more limiting than excluding entire categories of people from the humanist endeavour that is science?

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