Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.
It probably isn’t much of a stretch to say that science takes on the characteristics of the era in which it is conducted. When I look at science today, it seems to reflect the basic character of the time we live in: timidity born of baseless fear, short-term thinking and goals with a general lack of imagination. Science like many things in society is swept up in the overall sea of culture and experience. Perhaps it might be too much to ask for science to have a differing tone than other aspects of our World. On the other hand, the downsides to the current milieu with regard to science are stark and obvious. Science is in complete disarray and we are to blame.
For example, I work largely on a National project with enormously aggressive goals and sweep. I’ve worked in this program for two decades. This is Science-based Stockpile Stewardship (SBSS). This is the answer of the United States to the cessation of nuclear weapons’ testing and an important cornerstone of the effective test ban. To succeed it must be executed in a bold and fearless fashion with an unerring long-term vision aided by expressive creativity. The reality is so different. Our national leaders declare success without any basis in truth. It is part of the overall problem where the actual definition of success sews the seeds of failure. The actual program falls so far short of its vision as to be nearly comical if it weren’t so important.
It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.
― Theodore Roosevelt
Why then is the reality so different from this expression of the character of success? For all of its vision and importance, SBSS is caught up in the realities of today and the political nature of science today. As our political climate has become a festering and poisonous environment, the conduct of science has taken on a similar air. Part of this issue comes from the public funding of science, which is an absolute necessity considering the utter wasting away of corporate science. The imposition of short-term thinking as the principle organizing principle for industry has obliterated basic research at the corporate level. Unfortunately the corporate mantra has been adopted by the government as a way of improving the quality of governance. This has simply multiplied the harm done by the sort-term thinking and its ability to ravage any long-term accomplishments.
As a nation we can’t even take care of our roads, bridges, airports in a reasonable fashion because it’s payoff is not realized immediately. The undoing of the Nation’s infrastructure and failure to invest in its 21st Century equivalents is a clear and present danger to the economic future of the United States. Yet inaction rules the political response to the obvious need for investment. Science, whose benefits are far more ephemeral, is far more difficult to manage in a similarly long-term fashion. Like infrastructure, the investment in science is utterly inadequate and the destructive management environment imposed on it then compounds this inadequacy. Everything from politics to business is operating in a completely short-term, immediate payoff fashion. Almost everything must show progress and payoff quarterly and all long-term interests are scarified at this altar.
The truth is that short-term thinking is bad for business, bad for science, bad for careers, bad for everyone except those at the top. It only benefits activities like finance as a way of powering their moneymaking shell game. It benefits the very rich and their rent-seeking behavior. We get sold a complete line of bullshit in calling all the finance “investment” when it is simply moving money around to make more money. The middle class has been sold on this strategy through their retirement accounts, but this is the equivalent of a bribe as it only buys their acceptance of a system that harms the middle-class in the long-term. The only interest that truly benefits is the status quo that is locked in from this focus. For science, the short-term thinking is simply destructive and a recipe for mediocrity and lack of progress. Again, the problems are only seen in the long-term when the lack of scientific progress will harm our descendants.
Despite this obvious downside of defining all benefit in a short-term fashion everyone has bought this idea hook, line and sinker. The quarterly report driven attitude is driven by a false belief that it is good for business. All it is good for is driving the stock market and money around in the giant shell game that finance is today. In the process we have systematically destroyed many business interests and undermined the economic well being of the entire World. As bad as this is the damage to the conduct of science is greater. It has destroyed the scientific vitality of corporate laboratories. Discoveries that could have been the basis of the future economy are now being driven out of existence. Our World will be poorer; lives will be shorter in the long run due to the shortsighted, risk adverse and fear-driven policies of today.
Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.
― Robert F. Kennedy
For me I see my life and career playing out in this shitty time. I could have been part of something bold and wonderful with science providing the backbone of an important societal endeavor. Instead we are destroying research institutions through utter neglect. We are wasting careers and lives in pushing down risks due to irrational fears. All of this is done in service to short-term thinking that benefits the rich and powerful. No one else benefits from the short-term thinking, no one, it is simply a vehicle for empowering the status quo and assuring that the identities of those on top do not change. It is the straightjacket through which lack of social mobility arises.
How did all this happen?
All one has to do is look at the political environment today. Americans and perhaps the entire Western world have never been more fearful and afraid. At the same time the World has never been more peaceful. Our society and so-called leaders amp up every little fear and problem into a giant boogieman when the actual reality is completely opposite. We have never ever been safer than today. This is true even with the orgy of gun violence in the United States. The powers that be use the tiny danger of terrorism to drive the forces of the status quo while utterly ignoring larger dangers (like firearms). The truth is that we have never had less to fear. Yet fear is the driving force politically and used to sell fear-spewing candidates to a weak, shivering populace. Fear sells products to people whether is drugs, cars, media content, guns, or almost anything else. Our mass media is simply a tool of their corporate overlords with the ultimate design to enslave us to the status quo. Our society runs on fear and fear is used to enslave the populace. Science is simply an innocent bystander slain by the societal drive-by.
If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.
― Ken Robinson
The consequence of this constant fear-mongering and risk avoidance is a societal timidity. This timidity is a slow-motion surrender to the forces of stasis and decay. In almost all endeavors fortune favors the bold and aggressive, yet everything in the system discourages such attitudes. We have a socially imposed lack of confidence born of fear and enforced by systematic cowardice. The result is a broad-based diminishment of accomplishment. All the while the forces of the establishment openly crow about their successes and achievements publically while privately undermining every attempt to actually produce progress. We have reaped a World that makes Orwell’s vision of 1984 seem remarkably prescient.
To produce the sort of progress we are capable of the system needs to support it. Fear must be tamped down and reduced, and risks should be actively encouraged. We should seek aggressive and bold paths forward perhaps approached with some degree of reckless abandon, or the sort of over-confidence that allows the impossible to be achieved. Rather than squash progress at every opportunity, it needs to be fertilized and nurtured. Today’s systems effectively strangle the infant progress in its crib, aborting virtually every attempt to do anything that breaks the mold. You never hear a proposal being criticized for not being risky enough, only being too risky.
In the process we stay within the realm of the known and keep the unknown at bay. The unknown is where progress lives along with risk and fear. Without courting failure we cannot produce anything new. Today’s management looks for everything that could go wrong with a bold research path, and rarely looks for what could go right. We seek that safe and obvious incremental path because it will almost surely succeed with a little bit of competent effort.
This thinking infests the approach to high performance computing where a tried and true path of relying upon Moore’s law has powered modest improvements for decades. At the same time we have avoided progress in other areas of computing with greater benefits, but also greater risks and higher probabilities of failure. A prime example of this disservice can be found in numerical linear algebra where the solution of sparse systems has stagnated for decades. All the effort has been consumed by moving the existing methods to the new computing platforms, and little or nothing on improving the methods themselves. Orders of magnitude in performance improvements have been scarified to fear and risk avoidance. Let’s not forget that the principle beneficiaries of the current supercomputing program are computer vendors who will receive great sums of money to produce the monstrous computers being contemplated. These horrible machines will sap the resources left over to actually use them and simply compound the stasis already evident in the field.
Perhaps no area of modeling and simulation has been more neglected than the physical models used. We are in a decades long trajectory where the basic assumptions of the physical models used in simulation have been fixed. Despite rapidly accumulating evidence of the utter lack of applicability and appropriateness of many models forming the basis of codes, the models remain fixed. In a number of cases key assumptions such as separation of scales has broken down, yet no attempt has been made to overhaul the models. If a model is flawed no amount of raw computing power can save it, yet we are devoting massive resources and political will to increasing raw computing power.
It is quite evident that the key to successful modeling and simulation is not found in computer power, but rather in a variety of other activities. Rather than pursue a path that leads to greater success, but requires greater risk and more opportunity for failure, we pursue the path that seems safe. We need to focus on models, methods and algorithms along with innovative uses of computing. Instead we hold all of these aspects fixed while pursuing a host of rather safe and pedestrian activities that will do little to improve science. The lack of bold visionary leadership in scientific computing is somewhere between depressing and pathetic.
In a very clear way we are taking enormous risks with our future. We are accumulating massive long-term risk by consistently taking the low-risk short-term path. This is clearest when examining the state of the careers in science. Once we allowed people to aggressively pursue research with a high change of failure, but the possibility of massive payoffs. Today we timidly pursue incremental progress, yet view this as enormously risky. The greatest risk of the continued pursuit of a computing hardware driven path in high performance computing is the destruction of promising scientific careers, and the destruction of a balanced program for advancing modeling and simulation. Make no mistake, the current approach to modeling and simulation is completely unbalanced. It is timid. It lacks creativity. It lacks vitality. It is not science-based; it is fear-based. It is the result of an unhealthy fixation on short-term thinking about progress.
I work in computing, so I see the field rather fully. I am fairly certain that the attributes seen in computing are fairly broadly applicable to science in general. In areas close to computing and essential for progress, the same symptoms are there. By all accounts, experimental science is in even worse shape than computational science; theoretical physics even more so. The failings of experimental and theoretical science are profoundly evident in the lack of any vibrancy or vitality in modeling for computing, as they are the source of change. In both bases the state of these fields should roundly condemn SBSS to utter and complete failure. Those in power have declared success in SBSS, but the evidence is all to the contrary.
Perhaps my greatest concern is that these issues are all embedded with a societal environment that shows no sign of changing without great upheaval. Such an upheaval would be enormously painful, but perhaps greatly overdue. The last upheaval of such a magnitude was the 1960’s and probably created the environment we have today. The level of income and societal inequality we have today in unsustainable, and probably creates a social instability that will sooner or later explode. Perhaps we are seeing the beginnings of this, and it might be the best thing in the end.
The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he’s one who asks the right questions.
― Claude Lévi-Strauss