Research Universities’ Excellence Adventure

Academics in traditional university environments tend to be keenly aware of where their university ranks, whether they like to admit this or not. Most familiar are the college-level rankings like those from the US News & World Report, which weigh the undergraduate experience heavily. However in the research world, the notion of “excellence” has become the coin of the realm as evidenced by a proliferation of “excellence frameworks” such as the Research Excellence Framework  (UK), the German Universities Excellence Initiative, the Excellence in Research for Australia and the Performance Based Research Fund (New Zealand).  Given that many resources from capital funds, grants and permanent positions are doled out in accordance with rankings, where one’s institution stands goes beyond mere bragging rights. Most academics understand the arbitrary nature of such rankings and despite regular kvetching that they are either “unfair” (usually from those at an institution “lower” in the rankings) or that they have “finally” recognized the true worth of their institution (usually from those rising in the rankings), the existence of the ranking system itself, is normally taken as given.  After all, how are we to sort the worthy from the unworthy?

Samuel Moore, Cameron Neylon, Martin Paul Eve, Daniel Paul O’Donnell and Damian Pattinson have published an (ahem), excellent research paper “Excellence R Us”: university research and the fetishisation of excellence that comprehensively examines both the notion and practices of “excellence” in research.  Excellence, as most of the research frameworks define it, essentially boils down to some combination of ranking institutions by their scholars ability to publish in established prestige journals, ability to gain external grants and other easily-measured metric of scholarly output.

Their conclusion, in a nutshell: “excellence” is totally bogus:

…a focus on “excellence” impedes rather than promotes scientific and scholarly activity: it at the same time discourages both the intellectual risk-taking required to make the most significant advances in paradigm-shifting research and the careful “Normal Science” (Kuhn [1962] 2012) that allows us to consolidate our knowledge in the wake of such advances. It encourages researchers to engage in counterproductive conscious and unconscious gamesmanship. And it impoverishes science and scholarship by encouraging concentration rather than distribution of effort.

In other words in the context of scientific scholarship: focusing on excellence prevents the two things that we say we want from from science: careful reproducible science and the big breakthroughs. The article covers familiar ground to those who have been following the state of academia including discussions of the lack of reproducibility in science, the pernicious use of journal prestige to evaluate academics, and the general environment of hypercompetition in research. Many, if not most, academics are aware these issues, having been covered extensively in the trade press in recent years, but continue to view them through the lens of their effect on traditional tenure-track (or equivalent) faculty with established research programs. So it is refreshing that the article tackles how the rhetoric of ”excellence” can restrict the range of types and styles of scholarship, issues that are close to the heart of the Ronin Institute:

There is, however, another effect of the drive for “excellence”: a restriction in the range of scholars, of the research and scholarship performed by such scholars, and the impact such research and scholarship has on the larger population. Although “excellence” is commonly presented as the most fair or efficient way to distribute scarce resources (Sewitz, 2014), it in fact can have an impoverishing effect on the very practices that it seeks to encourage. A funding programme that looks to improve a nation’s research capacity by differentially rewarding “excellence” can have the paradoxical effect of reducing this capacity by underfunding the very forms of “normal” work that make science function (Kuhn [1962] 2012) or distract attention from national priorities and well-conducted research towards a focus on performance measures of North America and Europe (Vessuri et al., 2014)

The article continues by pointing out that “excellence” is often used as a proxy for  academic work that fit certain “standard” modes, which can result in a more bland and conformist world of scholarship:

Given the strong evidence that there is systemic bias within the institutions of research against women, under-represented ethnic groups, non-traditional centres of scholarship, and other disadvantaged groups (for a forthright admission of this bias with regard to non-traditional centres of scholarship, see Goodrich, 1945), it follows that an emphasis on the performance of “excellence”—or, in other words, being able to convince colleagues that one is even more deserving of reward than others in the same field—will create even stronger pressure to conform to unexamined biases and norms within the disciplinary culture: challenging expectations as to what it means to be a scientist is a very difficult way of demonstrating that you are the “best” at science; it is much easier if your appearance, work patterns, and research goals conform to those of which your adjudicators have previous experience. In a culture of “excellence” the quality of work from those who do not work in the expected “normative” fashion run a serious risk of being under-estimated and unrecognised.

As the authors point out it is common in such pieces to identify external factors such as:

institutional administrators captured by neo-liberal ideologies, funders over-focussed on delivering measurable returns rather than positive change, governments obsessed with economic growth at the cost of social or community value

as the primary cultural driver of metric-driven “excellence”. And this is definitely a huge part of the issue (see Ronin blog posts “Graeber on the Transformation of Universities” and “Henry Heller on IP-Based Capitalism at Universities”), but it’s not the only driver. Attributing these issues purely to external forces lets the academy somewhat off the hook since, as the authors continue:

the roots of the problem in fact lie in the internal narratives of the academy and the nature of “excellence” and “quality” as supposedly shared concepts that researchers have developed into shields of their autonomy. The solution to such problems lies not in arguing for more resources for distribution via existing channels as this will simply lead to further concentration and hypercompetition. Instead, we have argued, these internal narratives of the academy must be reformulated.

In other words: academia probably needs to take a look in the mirror once in a while and should question whether current norms really still serve their twin stated goals of encouraging sound “normal” scholarship as well as risky breakthroughs. I would also add: it should be enabling all scholars to participate in whatever way fits their individual talents, rather than promote a “one-size-fits-all” notion of alpha-academic success. There is much more to the article than space allows here, it’s a good piece for anybody interested in the future of scholarship, and it includes a highly detailed bibliography.

Citation: Moore, Neylon, Eve, O’Donnell, Pattinson. Palgrave Communications 3, Article number: 16105 (2017)

Coda: In a nice example of walking the walk, the authors have this note about “subverting traditional scarce markers of prestige” by adopting:

a redistributive approach to the order of their names in the byline. As an international collaboration of uniformly nice people (cf. Moran et al., 2016; Hoover et al., 1987; see Tartamelia, 2014 for an explanation), lacking access to a croquet field (cf. Hassell and May, 1974), writing as individuals rather than an academic version of the Borg (see Guedj, 2009), and not identifying any excellent pun (cf. Alpher et al., 1948; Lord et al., 1986) or “disarmingly quaint nom de guerre” (cf. Mrs Kinpaisby, 2008, 298 [thanks to Oli Duke-Williams for this reference]) to be made from the ordering of our names, we elected to assign index numbers to our surnames and randomize these using an online tool.

Python for the Life Sciences Interviews

Last year, Research Scholars Gordon Webster and Alex Lancaster published Python for the Life Sciences through Leanpub. Last month, Leanpub posted interviews with each of them.

Here’s a snippet of Gordon’s interview, published on Feb 17:

I mean, I think the one thing I would say is that – yes – that lay people do tend to think of scientists as being almost kind of like Mr. Spock – that is logical, and everything is kind of decision making, devoid of all that other human baggage like emotion and ambition and greed and all that stuff.

And the truth is, it’s really still very much a human activity. And the application of the scientific method – there’s this kind of ideal view of it, if you look at the books on the philosophy of science and Karl Popper and all this kind of stuff. There’s this very idealized, sort of Platonic ideal of what the scientific method is. But when you start to combine science and commerce, then all that human stuff, it still plays a role. And honestly, it plays a role even in academic research.

And here’s a piece from Alex’s interview, published on the 21st:

I started life thinking I would be an astrophysicist, basically. It was where I was originally when I was an undergrad. And actually I spent about a week in a radio telescope down in Canberra – a while ago now, shall we say? Another century. And I realized that that wasn’t really going to be it for me for the rest of my life. Astrophysics has changed a lot since, but there was a lot of sitting in very quiet, desolate places, pouring over data, and it sounds very glamorous on the outside – but the reality of the day-to-day just turned out that it didn’t really appeal to me.

So, trying to figure out what to do, I decided to finish my engineering degree, which I started with. But I was always interested in evolution from a very young age, I think [from] when I picked up Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker, which was written sometime in the 80s. I was just fascinated with the idea of these biomorphs, which were these little creatures that he had built evolutionarily on a Mac. It was nothing to do with real biology, but it was very – basically you could construct these creatures from this very simple genetic code. And it sort of always stayed with me.

Check out the full interviews, and the book!

Timothy Snyder on American Democracy

Discussion of politics and policy tends to be dominated by journalists and partisan political operatives. However, scholars often have a different set of insights that come from deep study and that are less distorted by market and ideological pressures. Of particular relevance at this particular moment in American history are scholars of authoritarianism.

Last week, the German newspaper SZ published an interview with Yale history professor Timothy Snyder. The whole thing is worth a read. Here, for example, is his discussion of the dangers arising from the erosion of our understanding of mid-20th century authoritarianism in the post-Cold War era.

You would argue that this knowledge had existed before but it was forgotten.

Scholars knew much more know about the 1930s – whether we are speaking of National Socialism, fascism, or Stalinism.  But publics are much less interested.  And we lack, for whatever reason, the concepts that we used to have that allowed us to connect ideas and political processes.  When an American president says “America First” or proposes a political system without the two parties or attacks journalists or denies the existence of facts, that should set of a series of associations with other political systems. We need people who can help translate ideological utterances into political warnings.  Thinkers of the middle of twentieth century are now being read again, and for good reason. The American canon included native and refugee ex-communists who came to this country of the 1930s, refugees from fascism and National Socialism in the 40s, and the Cold War liberals of the 1950s. There was this time where we engaged in political theory and history, where people thought about what fascism and communism meant for democracy. Now, one reason why we cannot forget the 1930s is that the presidential administration is clearly thinking about them – but in a positive sense. They seem to be after a kind of redo of the 1930s with Roosevelt where the Americans take a different course. where we don’t build a welfare state and don’t intervene in Europe to stop fascism. Lindbergh instead of FDR.  That is their notion. Something went wrong with Roosevelt and now they want to go back and reverse it.

And here’s the wrap-up of the interview, part of which you may already seen as a pull-quote:

On Facebook there are a lot of countdowns: 3 years, 11 months, 1 week until President Trump’s first term is over. How is your mood, do you see hope?  

The marches were very encouraging. These were quite possibly the largest demonstrations in the history of the US, just in sheer numbers on one single day. That sort of initiative has to continue.  The constitution is worth saving, the rule of law is worth saving, democracy is worth saving, but these things can and will be lost if everyone waits around for someone else. If we want encouragement out of the Oval Office, we will not get it. We are not getting encouragement thus far from Republicans. They have good reasons to defend the republic but thus far they are not doing so, with a few exceptions.  You want to end on a positive note, I know; but I think things have tightened up very fast, we have at most a year to defend the Republic, perhaps less.  What happens in the next few weeks is very important.

Politics, Diversity, and the March for Science

On April 22, there is a March for Science in Washington, DC, with satellite marches around the world. The march is in response to recent acts by the US government (such as the silencing of government scientists, anti-science cabinet appointments, restrictions on international movement of scientists, and a general rejection of facts and expertise), as well as concern about future actions.

Although the response from the scientific community to the march has been largely positive, there is a significant minority out there complaining, or more often concern trolling, about “politicizing science.” So for those of you who feel that science should not be political, or who have to deal with people who say things like “don’t make science political,” here are a few thoughts.

Science is Already Political

Yes, ideally, the conclusions of scientific inquiry should not be influenced by political factors. You do the experiment or analysis, and the results are what they are. In some fields, that ideal may even be achievable in practice.

But everything surrounding science is inherently political, like what questions get asked, who gets to ask them, and who becomes famous for finding the answers. If we take a broad view of “political,” the activity of science is political at every level. Departmental politics affect access to resources, and disciplinary politics affects which science gets published in which journals.

We can give the “don’t make science political” folks (DMSPs) the benefit of the doubt, and assume they are referring specifically to the government. But here, too, science has long been political. In the post–World War II era, the predominant model of science has relied on government funding. Universities and science-advocacy groups spend millions of dollars every year on lobbying about science funding, as do religious and other interest groups. Ignoring politics altogether means handing over control of the funding and oversight of science to those who don’t ignore it, including many groups with explicit anti-science agendas.

Maybe You Meant Partisan?

I suspect that what some of the DMSPs mean is that we should be careful not to make the March for Science into a partisan issue, where we are all chanting, “Science good! Republicans bad!” This is perhaps a good argument for requiring that scientists receive a better general education.

It is true that, overall, federal funding of science in the United States has had pretty good bipartisan support. Yes, when some asshole congressman ignorantly mocks NSF-funded research projects, it is usually a Republican. On the other hand, the biggest increases in NIH funding in decades came under George W Bush. Republicans and Democrats have often prioritized different areas of science, but for most of the past seventy years, the inherent value of science has not been a particularly partisan issue.

from the Center for American Progress http://ampr.gs/2lD3kku

It seems reasonable to say that we should be careful not to alienate the party that controls the government. The problem is that that party is currently dominated by people with an unequivocally anti-science agenda. It is not necessarily that they are going to defund all science — in fact, some areas of research may even benefit in the short term. It is that there is now an overt agenda to silence and delegitimize science that does not conform to specific ideological pre-commitments.

I suspect that there are many Republicans in congress who privately support quality independent scientific research. But so far, very few Republicans have been willing to take stands against any of the extreme policies of their leadership or the new administration. That makes it feel like the fight for science is a partisan one, but not because scientists chose to make it that way. To misquote Ronald Reagan, science did not leave the Republican party, the Republican party left science. We must fight for science, and that fight will, in the short term, be partisan. Hopefully, if saner Republicans are able to regain control of their party, that won’t always be the case.

But Actually You Meant Diversity

In reality, what most of the DMSPs are actually mad about is not politics or partisanship, but diversity. The first significant backlash against the March for Science came after the march organizers posted their diversity policy. For example:

The diversity statement has gone through a couple of iterations over the past weeks, but here is the current version:

The March for Science strongly supports diversity, inclusion and equality in science.

American and global citizens are best served when we build and sustain an inclusive scientific community. We advocate for equal access to science education and scientific careers. When evidence-based science and policy are ignored, marginalized communities are differentially and disproportionately impacted.

Scientists and people who care about science are an intersectional group, embodying a diverse range of race, sexual orientation, (a)gender identity, ability, religion, socioeconomic and immigration statuses. We, the march organizers, come from and stand in solidarity with historically underrepresented scientists and science advocates.

To characterize a statement like this as “anti-science” is just absolute monkey-bonkers. It’s the sort of thing you expect to see from a twitter egg or one of those frog people. It’s hard even to know where to start. For one thing, there is pretty good empirical evidence of the effect of various systemic -isms and -phobias on representation in science and elsewhere. You might even call that evidence “scientific.” You may recall from something you read about sixty seconds ago that questions of who gets to do what science — and who gets to become famous for it — are always steeped in politics. People who believe that science is somehow a pure meritocracy, where the best, purest scientists rise to the top of a colorblind (genderblind, etc.) hierarchy are 1) typically people whose careers were advanced, rather than impeded, by systematic biases, and, 2) wrong.

But What About Just Focusing on Science?

Other critics — those who are not the favorite cognitive scientist of libertarian man-babies and closeted white supremacist pseudo-intellectuals — have tended to criticize this pro-inclusion, pro-diversity stance as a “distraction,” or as something that risks alienating some of our would-be allies. These critics say that the march should just focus on science.

The focus-on-science criticism is actually saying, “I don’t care that you have these other concerns. You should be focusing on my concern.” I’ve seen variations on this argument in a lot of places. Unsurprisingly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it coming from someone volunteering to help organize anything.

Most of the organizers of the March for Science appear to be members of underrepresented groups, because that’s who stepped up. As soon as the march became a big deal, in comes a brigade of, let’s say, non-underrepresented scientists. These guys (yes) criticize the march for addressing issues that are not of direct relevance to them. There tends to be a lot of entitlement, as if, obviously, the organizers will defer to their authority and reorganize the march to their liking. Actually, the whole pattern makes a nifty case study in one of the reasons why pro-active diversity efforts are necessary.

Defending diversity in science is not a distraction from the defense of science. Science is an activity done by human beings who exist in the world. You may not view civil rights and civil liberties as being relevant to science, but they are certainly relevant to scientists, without whom there is no science. Protecting current and future scientists from persecution, exclusion, and discrimination is just as important to science as protecting science communication from censorship.

And if your top concern is that explicitly valuing diversity will alienate potential allies, then you need to aspire to a better class of ally. Discounting diversity concerns as irrelevant is selfish and ignorant, but suppressing those concerns to curry favor with bigots is a whole other level of shitty. If our only hope of saving American science relies on the largesse of racists and xenophobes, we are in even more trouble than we thought.

What’s a DMSP To Do?

So what should your your DMSP friend do? The friend who wants to support science, but who is turned off by talk of diversity. Or what should you do, if you’re the unlikely DMSP who has not already rage-closed this post?

Here’s the good news: the March for Science, like pretty much all political actions not organized by totalitarians, will be heterogeneous, idiosyncratic, and a little bit chaotic. Odds are, you won’t really be able to hear the speakers, and their diversity won’t affect you one way or another. The “message” of the march will be only loosely controlled by the organizers.

More than anything, the message of the march will be the sum of the messages of the individual marchers. So, if diversity isn’t your issue, don’t make your sign about diversity. (But if you’re an advocate of evidence-based decision making, you should talk — and listen — to some scientists from underrepresented groups and think about whether maybe it should be one of your issues.)

And if you are, for whatever reason, unable to empathize with the concerns of scientists who don’t look, or act, just like you, maybe think of this: the people who round up minorities for incarceration, deportation, or extermination are generally the same people who round up scientists and other intellectuals for reeducation. The story of fascism does not end with, “but then the white men were given adequate funding and intellectual independence to pursue their research without interference from their otherwise-Orwellian rulers.”

Or maybe you’re just clinging to the hope that you won’t need to get involved in any of this political stuff. The impulse to avoid taking sides is strongly ingrained in many scientists. But not taking sides may soon not be an option. We are moving into the Geddy Lee zone, where if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.

Choose wisely.

Excellent and Important Data Visualization on White Supremacist Violence

The website http://www.monroeworktoday.org/ has some really great data visualization for lynchings in the United States between 1835 and 1964. The interactive map and timeline show the locations and dates of lynchings, and many of the thousands of markers link to additional information about the crimes and victims.

Snapshot of the interactive map

There is also a ton of historical information about lynching and white supremacy movements, as well as some discussion tools that would make this a great educational resource.

Much of the text is presented in a way to be accessible to high-school students, but I can guarantee that there’s plenty of fascinating an important history here, no matter what your age or education.

Interdisciplinarity and Productivity

In a blog post at the London School of Economics, University of Arizona Sociology Professor Erin Leahey describes some of her recent work on the costs and benefits of interdisciplinary research for productivity and impact metrics in science. The basic pattern is that interdisciplinary work tends to receive more citations (a common metric used to judge “impact”), but tends to lead to fewer publications (a common metric used to judge “productivity”).

She goes on to describe her efforts with her coauthors to discover the source of this productivity penalty. They found no evidence that interdisciplinary work has a harder time in the review and publication process than traditional disciplinary work. Rather, the cost seems to be in the additional effort required to actually do the interdisciplinary work.

IDR could also stifle productivity because the process of producing interdisciplinary scholarship—learning new concepts, literatures, and techniques, working with a diverse group of collaborators—is challenging. We find that IDR projects do indeed face these hurdles. Scholars who engage in ‘repeat collaborations’ with the same set (or subset) of authors experience a smaller productivity penalty than we see overall, so scholars do become accustomed to working with their coauthors (regardless of field). Survey responses from a small sub-sample of these scholars reveal that interdisciplinary teams have more difficulty generating ideas, and their communication is less clear, more difficult, and lower quality. Last, because our theory suggests that it is challenging to incorporate different ideas into a single paper, multidisciplinary scholars (who publish separate papers on distinct topics) likely do not face production penalties. Indeed, our results show that scholars conducting multidisciplinary research are more productive, not less.

This resonates with my own experience. When working on a project in your own field, it is easy to underestimate just how much you rely on deep experience. Engaging in a meaningful interdisciplinary collaboration requires a lot of remedial education.

Of course, this is not to say that you should shy away from interdisciplinary work. I’d say it is one more reason why hiring and promotion committees should be wary of publication counting.

The study can be found here: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0001839216665364

Narcissism in Science

For some reason, I guess narcissism was on people’s minds last Friday. Hannah Devlin had a story in the Guardian about a lecture given by immunologist Bruno Lemaitre about the crisis of narcissism in science.

“Many great scientists are narcissists. It’s a bit sad, but it’s a fact,” he said. “This might surprise an external observer, because scientists are usually perceived as being modest searchers for the truth and working collectively for the advancement of science.”

Lemaitre is not suggesting his profession is unique in having experienced a rise in individualism – politics, film or fashion are probably worse and the trend is global, he says, but it has some worrying implications that are specific to science.

“The influence of narcissism on so many aspects of science calls into question [its] very objectivity,” he said.

The replication crisis in psychology and the life sciences, in which “sexy” papers fail to stand up to closer scrutiny, can be blamed in part on scientists being motivated by a need for attention and authority as well as curiosity about the natural world, he said.

This sounds right to me.

Updates to Landry’s Work on Metaphysics

Ronin Institute Research Scholar Forrest Landry‘s essays on Analytic Metaphysics are available at http://uvsm.com. Recently, Forrest has updated some of those essays, converting them to dialog form. Details follow, but Forrest notes that he welcomes comment particularly on the new dialog on the Incommensuration Theorem. So, those of you with an Analytic and/or Metaphysical mindset, have at it!

http://www.magic-flight.com/pub/uvsm_1/reform_meta_essays_3.htm

This is basically the essay, rewritten in dialog form, of a means by which the Axiom Concepts can be arrived at.

http://www.magic-flight.com/pub/uvsm_1/axiom_1.htm

This is almost an exact copy of the relevant section of the 2.0 book, converted into web format, so that if you need to refer or cite to someone just (and only) the formal statement of the Axioms, that there is some place on the web where this is easy to read (even on a mobile phone).

http://www.magic-flight.com/pub/uvsm_1/core_lexicon_1.htm

This is an almost completely reworked and re-sequenced view of the main aphorism content of the IM 2.0 book, with an emphasis on just either defining or including the base language generally used in various ways in other IM essays, content, etc.  Think of this section as being a fairly minimal and compact Glossary of all of the important IM terms.

http://www.magic-flight.com/pub/uvsm_1/ict_dialog_3.htm

The essay of the Incommensuration Theorem (ICT) has been completely re-written as a dialog and is presented freshly completed today.  The dialog covers a number of important topics, and connects them together in a fairly compact and independent manner.  This dialog, at this point, represents probably one of the most useful ‘deep theory results’ to perhaps be offering as a presentation to use on general interest items such as QM/GR reconciliation failure, the hard problem, generalization of Bell/Godel, etc.

http://www.magic-flight.com/pub/uvsm_1/modality_metaphors_1.htm

Also converted into mobile web presentable dialog format is a basic statement of language correspondence between the modality terms as formally used, and their occurrence within more general public usage.  Technically this is part of the core Glossary.

http://www.magic-flight.com/pub/uvsm_1/axiom_ii_if4.htm

This URL is being included for completeness, insofar as it is also version 3 content — things edited or updated since the release of the 2.0 manuscript.  Even though it was not written or updated recently, insofar as it defines an important reconciliation of how/why the Axiom II flow dynamics are so composed.  Be advised that this represents some of the most abstract and complex work on the site — not an easy read.

Duerr Chapter(s) in New Book on Curating Research Data

Just published by the American Library Association is Curating Research Data, a two-volume collection edited by Lisa Johnston. Research Scholar Ruth Duerr writes:

Karen Baker and I wrote the first chapter in Volume 1 – Chapter 1. Research and the Changing Nature of Data Repositories.  Karen and I both have a long history with all things data related.  We realized when the call for authors for this book went out, that the academic library community is pretty unaware of the more than 50 years that domain repositories and other such institutions have been dealing with data.  So we thought we’d write this chapter to bring the community up to speed.   It is nice that it was chosen as the first chapter in the section Part I. Setting the Stage for Data Curation. Policies, Culture, and Collaboration.

We also contributed a Case study to Volume 2, Section Step 4.0: Ingest and Store Data in Your Repository entitled “data and a diversity of repositories” just to make the reader aware of the various types of repositories out there…

So check it out!

Battle-Fisher Producing Documentary on Transhumanism

Congratulations to Ronin Institute Research Scholar Michele Battle-Fisher, who will be a co-producer on News2Share’s upcoming film Transhumanism: A Documentary. Here’s the concept trailer:

The project is currently raising funds on indiegogo. Check out the project page to learn more:

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/transhuman-a-documentary-news-film#/

On a related note: