Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.
Right now, I’m visiting North Carolina and speaking with plasma physicists about V&V (the American Physical Society’s Gaseous Electronics Conference-GEC in Raleigh). I gave a talk on my experiences and any wisdom gained through 15 years of effort in the largest scientific software project ever. Afterward, I participated in a panel discussion of the topic and the prospects for crafting a path forward.
Towards the end of the questions about my presentation, one of the other speakers asked me how large the code development efforts I worked on were. In answering it, I realized to my shame that am enormously lucky to be working with resources I have at my disposal. The people I was speaking to are working with vastly less. Who was I to be giving them advice? It was like the rich guy rolling down the window of his limo to encourage the homeless person to “get a job, you bum!”
It’s mind-boggling how many different worlds people live in on this one planet.
As a result, at the end of the panel discussion I was bombarded by a couple of feelings that were odd. The first was gratitude for the opportunities I’ve been granted professionally. I have been extraordinarily fortunate and lucky to work on projects that have been so incredibly well funded and supported. Fifteen years of (semi-) coherent effort towards some goal is amazing in today’s attention-deficit World.
The second part was some degree of shame related to telling anyone without the resources I’ve had access to about how to do anything. The third part was some degree of dismay in seeing how little progress we have actually made with the resources given to us where I work. Those with precious little to apply to their problems (like those who invited me to this meeting) don’t seem to have a chance of slaying the dragons confronting them. Saying this has nothing to do with their capability or capacity for good work; it has everything to do with the level of effort that can be mustered toward singular goals. The GEC-community is dealing with a host of different physics in a plethora of different regimes applied to a phalanx of different purposes. Without a common axis to orient their efforts, the efforts are horribly fragmented, and naturally incoherent. I think about my situation and think, “holy shit! I do have it easy!”
There is the honest issue that parts of the plasma physics community who have resources have failed at improving modeling and simulation in a balanced way. Too much effort has been placed in creating physics models, and too little effort has been placed in better algorithms and better practices to solve problems. These projects are almost as well off as the ones I work on, but have left their community with too little to build on. In many respects the plasma physics community has lagged behind in some significant ways. It felt good to admit to the audience yesterday that in many respects plasma physics is the whipping boy in some V&V circles for how NOT to do things. I asked this in providing the audience with a compliment that they were doing something to change this. It was also a question to them about how the broader plasma physics community feels about V&V and what their collective concerns are.
There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.
Much is being made of inequality today. The reasons are plain to see, the levels of inequality of opportunity, wealth and quality of life are stunning. They imperil our ability to advance as a society because so many are left behind without any capacity to fully contribute to the success of the whole. A large part of the reason for the deficit of capacity for contribution is the lack of meaningful outlet when society as a whole is organized to funnel the product of societal efforts into the hands of precious few. We are not organized to maximize the efforts of our citizens, but rather maximize the wealth of a select few.
Why bring this up? What could this possibly have to do with science?
Everything. Scientists are part of the overall trend where our efforts are thwarted by the overall tendency toward massive redistribution of resources.
What separates privilege from entitlement is gratitude.
The inequality is society is impacting science massively. Money has become the barometer by which all things are measured. It is seemingly the one size fits all metric for the value of all things. It is driving the short-term thinking permeating business thinking today. The reasoning for the short-term thinking is its ability to maximize the flow of resources into the hands of the already rich in the credit and investment markets; it is not because it maximizes the aggregate benefit to society or even the long-term benefit to business. The policies governing our World today are for the benefit of the few, not the many.
In a nearly Pavlovian sense, science has adopted this philosophy of governance because business knows how to run everything. Science is part of the overall political environment and subject to its trends. The results of this approach are wrecking havoc across the board. It is ruining academia by shifting the core focus of institutions toward short-term maximization of grants (i.e., basic cast flow) over the core principled approach of education. This is driven by and justified by the lack of societal investment in higher education. The research focus of universities is being driven toward the “publish or perish” philosophy that hollows out the depth of the research while draining away the critical training of the next generation of researchers. The consequences are grim. We are producing much more work, with much less quality and impact.
While the government research Labs are relatively better in terms of available resources, the short-term thinking is driving away real innovation and ruining this precious resoruce. It has been impacting the Labs like a hostile takeover; the stores of knowledge are being sold off to the highest bidder, and nothing is being done to replenish them. The sort of deep multi-disciplinary science that made these Labs great is being traded away for survival. The impact on quality is similar to what the university system is creating.
All told the impact of these forces means that big thorny problems will go unsolved. It doesn’t mean that they can’t be solved; it means that it is much less likely to see great work done. It isn’t merely a resource issue, but how those resources are arrayed. Those with more resources, like the Labs, will make breakthroughs more often. Overall, the current risk-adverse, short-term-focused, business-inspired approach is tailor made for assuring no progress on anything difficult.
We will continue along the path where mediocrity will be sold as success until we change our attitudes to value the long-term and things beyond money. This will happen because our current trajectory is unsustainable.
Nonetheless, I learned an important lesson yesterday, I’m more fortunate than many. I still hold to the core principle that quality of circumstance is not improved by the misfortune of others. Just because I’m better off and relatively lucky doesn’t make it good; instead it just makes it better than awful.
A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both.