Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.
― Richard Feynman
When I got my first job out of school it was in Los Alamos home of one of the greatest scientific institutions in the World. This Lab birthed the Atomic Age and changed the World. I went there to work, but also learn and grow in a place where science reigned supreme and technical credibility really and truly mattered. Los Alamos did not disappoint at all. The place lived and breathed science, and I was bathed in knowledge and expertise. I can’t think of a better place to be a young scientist. Little did I know that the era of great science and technical superiority was drawing to a close. The place that welcomed me with so much generosity of spirit was dying. Today it is a mere shell of its former self along with Laboratories strewn across the country whose former greatness has been replaced by rampant mediocrity, pathetic leadership and a management class that rules this decline. Money has replaced achievement, integrity and quality as the lifeblood of science. Starting with a quote by Feynman is apt because the spirit he represents so well is the very thing we have completely beat out of the system.
Don’t think money does everything or you are going to end up doing everything for money.
If one takes a look at the people who get celebrated by organizations today, it is almost invariably managers. This happens internally to organizations, their external face and alumni recognition by universities. In almost every case the people who are highlighted to represent achievement are managers. One explanation is managers have a direct connection to money. One of the key characteristics of the modern age is the centrality of money to organizational success. Money is connected to management, and increasingly disconnected from technical achievement. This is true in industry, government and university worlds, the entire scientific universe. The whole post could have replaced “the rise of management” with the “rise of money”. We increasingly look at aggregate budget as coequal to quality. The more money an organization has, the better it is, and more important it is. A few organizations still struggle to hang on to celebrating technical achievers, Los Alamos among them. These celebrations weaken with each passing year. The real celebration is how much budget the Lab has, and how many employees that can support.
People who don’t take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year. People who do take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year.
― Peter F. Drucker
The days of technical competence and scientific accomplishment are over. This foundation for American greatness has been overrun by risk aversion, fear and compliance with a spirit of commonness. I use the word “greatness” with gritted teeth because of the perversion of its meaning by the current President. This perversion is acute in the context of science because he represents everything that is destroying the greatness of the United States. Rather than “making America great again” he is accelerating every trend that has been eroding the foundation of American achievement. The management he epitomizes is the very thing that is the blunt tool bludgeoning American greatness into a bloody pulp. Trump’s pervasive incompetence masquerading as management expertise will surely push numerous American institutions further over the edge into mediocrity. His brand of management is all to prevalent today and utterly toxic to quality and integrity.
In my life, the erosion of American greatness in science is profound, evident and continual. I had a good decade of basking in the greatness of Los Alamos before the forces of mediocrity descended upon the Lab and proceeded to spoil, distort and destroy every bit of greatness in sight. A large part of the destruction was the replacement of technical excellence with management. The management is there to control the “butthead cowboys” and keep them from fucking up. Put differently, the management is there to destroy any individuality and make sure no one ever achieves anything great because no one can take a risk sufficient to achieve something miraculous. Anyone expressing individuality is a threat and needs to be chained up. We replaced stunning World class technical achievement with controlled staff, copious reporting, milestone setting, project management and compliance all delivered with mediocrity. This is bad enough by itself, but for an institution responsible for maintaining our nuclear weapons stockpile, the consequences are dire. Los Alamos isn’t remotely alone. Everything in the United States is being assaulted by the arrayed forces of mediocrity. It is reasonable to ask whether the responsibilities the Labs are charged with continue to be competently achieved.
There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.
― Peter F. Drucker
The march of the United States toward a squalid mediocrity had already begun years earlier. Management has led the way at every stage of the transformation. For scientific institutions, the decline began in the 1970’s with the Department of Defense Labs. Once these Labs were shining beacons of achievement, but management unleashed on them put a stop to this. Since then we have seen NASA, Universities, and the DOE Labs all brought under the jack boots of management. All of this management was brought in to enforce a formality of operations, provide a safe or secure workplace, and keep scandals at bay. The Nation has decided that phenomenal success and great achievements aren’t worth the risks or side-effects of being successful. The management is the delivery vehicle for the mediocrity inducing control. The power and achievement of the technical class is the causality. Management is necessary, but today the precious balance between control and achievement is completely lost.
The managers aren’t evil, but neither are most of the people who simply carry out the orders of their superiors. Most managers are good people who simply carry out awful things because they are expected to do so. We now put everything except technical achievement as a priority. Doing great technical work is always the last priority. It can always get pushed out by something else. The most important thing is compliance with all the rules and regulations. Management stands there to make sure it all gets done. This involves lots of really horrible training designed to show compliance but teach people almost nothing. We have project management to make sure we are on time and budget. Since the biggest maxim of our pathetic management culture is never making a mistake, risks are the last thing you can take. It helps a lot when we really aren’t accomplishing anything worthwhile. When the fix is in and technical standards disappear, it doesn’t matter how terrible the work is. All work is World class by definition. Eventually everyone starts to believe the bullshit. The work is great, right, of course it is.
All of this is now blazoned across the political landscape with an inescapable sense that America’s best days are behind us. The deeply perverse outcome of the latest National election is a president who is a cartoonish version of a successful manager. We have put our abuser and a representative of the class that has undermined our Nation’s true greatness in the position of restoring that greatness. What a grand farce! Every day produces evidence that the current efforts toward restoring greatness are using the very things undermining it. The level of irony is so great as to defy credulity. The current administration’s efforts are the end point of a process that started over 20 years ago, obliterating professional government service and hollowing out technical expertise in every corner. The management class that has arisen in their place cannot achieve anything but moving money and people. Their ability to create the new and wonderful foundation of technical achievement is absent.
Greatness is a product of hard work, luck and taking appropriate risks. In science it is grounded upon technical achievements arising from intellectual labors along with a lot of failures, false starts and mistakes. Today’s highly managed World everything that leads to greatness is undermined. Hard work is taxed by a variety of non-productive actions that compliance demands. Appropriate risks are avoided as a matter of course because risks court failure and failure of any sort is virtually outlawed. False starts never happening any more in today’s project managed reality. Mistakes are fatal for careers. Risk, failure and mistakes are all necessary for learning, and ultimately producing unique and advanced ideas come from the intellectual product of a healthy environment. An environment that cannot tolerate failure and risk is unhealthy. It is stagnant and unproductive. This is exactly where today’s workplace has arrived.
Money is a great servant but a bad master.
― Francis Bacon
With the twin pillars of destruction coming from money’s stranglehold on science and the inability to take risks, peer review has been undermined. Our current standards of peer review lack any integrity whatsoever. Success by definition is the rule of the day. A peer review cannot point out flaws without threatening the reviewers with dire consequences. This has fueled a massive downward spiral in the quality of technical work. Why take risks necessary for progress, when success can be so much more easily faked. Today peer review is so weak that bullshitting your way to success has become the norm. To point out real shortcomings in work has become unacceptable and courts scandal. It puts monetary issues at risk and potentially produces consequences for the work that management cannot accept. In the current environment scientific achievement does not happen because achievement is invariably risk prone. Such risks cannot be taken because of the hostile environment toward any problems or failures. Without failure, we are not learning, and learning at its apex is essentially research. Weak peer review is a large contributor to the decline in technical achievement and the loss of importance for the technical contributor.
Perhaps the greatest blow to science was the end of the Cold War. The Soviet bloc represented a genuine threat to the West and a worthy adversary. Technical and scientific competence and achievement was a key aspect in the defense of the West. Good work couldn’t be faked, and everyone knew that the West needed to bring their “A” game, or risk losing. When the Soviet bloc crumbled, so did a great deal of the unfettered support for science. Society lost its taste for the sorts of risks necessary for high levels of achievement. To some extent, the loss of ability to take risks and accept failures was already underway with the end of the Cold War simply providing a hammer blow to support for science. It ended the primacy of true achievement as a route to National security. It might be useful to note that the science behind “Star Wars” was specious from the beginning. In a very real way the bullshit science of Star Wars was a trail blazer for today’s rampant scientific charlatans. Rather than give science a free reign to seek breakthroughs along with the inevitable failure, society suddenly sought guaranteed achievement at a reduced cost. In reality it got neither achievement or economized results. With the flow of money being equated to quality as opposed to results, the combination has poisoned science.
How do you defeat terrorism? Don’t be terrorized.
― Salman Rushdie
This transformation was already bad enough then the war on terror erupted to further complicate matters. The war on terror was a new cash cow for the broader defense establishment but came with all the trappings of guaranteed safety and assured results. It solidified the hold of money as the medium for science. Since terrorists represent no actual threat to society, technical success was unnecessary for victory. The only risk to society from terrorism is the self-inflicted damage we do to ourselves, and we’ve done the terrorists work for them masterfully. In most respects the only thing that matters at the Labs is funding. Quality, duty, integrity and virtually anything is up for sale for money. Money has become the sole determining factor for quality and the dominant factor in every decision. Since the managers are the gate keepers for funding they have uprooted technical achievement and progress as the core of organizational identity. It is no understatement to say that the dominance of financial concerns is tied to the ascendency of management and the decline of technical work. At the same time the desire for assured results produced a legion of charlatans who began to infest the research establishment. This combination has produced the corrosive effect of reducing the integrity of the entire system where money rules and results can be finessed to outright fabricated. Standards are so low now that it doesn’t really matter.
Government has three primary functions. It should provide for military defense of the nation. It should enforce contracts between individuals. It should protect citizens from crimes against themselves or their property. When government– in pursuit of good intentions tries to rearrange the economy, legislate morality, or help special interests, the cost come in inefficiency, lack of motivation, and loss of freedom. Government should be a referee, not an active player.
― Milton Friedman
One of the key trends impacting our government funded Labs and research is the languid approach to science by the government. Spearheading this systematic decline in support is the long-term Republican approach to starving government that really took the stage in 1994 with the “Contract with America”. Since that time the funding for science has declined in real dollars along with a decrease in the support for professionalism by those in government. Over time the salaries and level of professional management has been under siege as part of an overall assault on governing. A compounding effect has been an ever-present squeeze on the rules related to conducting science. On the one hand we are told that the best business practices will be utilized to make science more efficient. Simultaneously, best practices in support for science have denied us. The result is no efficiency along with no best practices and simply a decline in overall professionalism for the Labs. All of this is deeply compounding the overall decline in support for research.
Rank does not confer privilege or give power. It imposes responsibility.
― Peter F. Drucker
What can be done to fix all this?
Sometimes the road back to effective and productive technical work seems so daunting as to defy description. I’d say that a couple of important things are needed to pave the road. Mostly importantly, the purpose and importance of the work needs centrality to the identity of science. Purpose and service needs to replace money as the key organizing principle. A high-quality product needs to replace financial interests as the driving force in managing efforts. This step alone would make a huge difference and drive most of the rest of the necessary elements for a return to technical focus. First and foremost, among these elements is an embrace of risk. We need to take risks and concomitantly accept failures as an essential element in success. We must let ourselves fail in attempting to achieve great progress through thoughtful risks. Learning, progress and genuine expertise need to become the measure of success and the lifeblood for our scientific and technical worlds. Management needs to shrink into the background where it becomes a service to technical achievement and an enabler for those producing the work. The organizations need to celebrate the science and technical achievements as the zenith of their collective identity. As part of this we need to have enough integrity to hold ourselves to high standards, welcoming and demanding hard hitting critiques.
In a nutshell we need to do almost the complete opposite of everything we do today.
We are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can we find progress.
― Richard Feynman