The Future of Science

I’m writing a book entitled “The Future of Science”. It’s about the potential of online tools to change the way scientific discoveries are made, why scientists have been slow to adopt those tools, what can be done to realize the potential, and what it will mean for society. Many of the basic ideas are summarized in a shorter essay. I also write frequently about related topics on my blog.

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1 comment

  1. Dear Dr Nielsen,

    I have read your short essay on the future of science. Here are some random thoughts of mine on the issue.

    Yes the web has great potential and markets can do a lot for us. But there are few issues which make me skeptical about the use of these ideas to scientific research, which are partly the same reasons why financial markets has failed so dramatically recently.
    One problem is that there is no substitute for hard work and time. If I spend a week studying a techniques which someone else can directly apply to my problem in one hour, some may think I have lost one week, I would say that I have learned something new. This is part of my “human capital” and I can transfer it to my students or collaborators when I discuss with them. If I can get someone else solving my problem in one hour by going to some webpage, I will have a paper written more quickly, but what have I learned?

    The use of scientometry for assessing research is a good thing, but unfortunately this also gives incentives to scientists to care more about their citation record than about ideas. It has been proved, for example, that the pressure to publish in journals such as Nature (which is a quite recent trend in physics, less that 2 decades old) has led to overstatements and scientifically poor papers.
    These incentives push scientists to spend a sizeable fraction of their time fighting with editors and colleagues to get a paper through the most important journal or to get one more citation from their peers.
    The h-index can help, but there is no substitute for scientists to judge the quality of other scientists.
    Likewise, there is no substitute for fundamental analysis for judging whether a company is good or bad, regardless how its shares are rising in the financial market.
    When the human expertise is substituted by some automatic expert system all sorts of problems can happen (e.g. rational herds, see Bikhchandani S, Hirshleifer D and Welch I, 1992 J. Pol. Econ. 100 992).

    The world is spinning faster and faster and with internet one has the impression that things can be speeded up even more (eliminating waste of time). Unfortunately, our hardware is more or less the same as that of 40000 years ago.

    In the end, science is about reducing entropy, i.e. organizing the knowledge of the world we live in (from fundamental processes of elementary particles and the cell to the international financial markets and the Internet). Isn’t the world changing too fast for us to understand how it works? Maybe human activity itself is producing entropy (i.e. information) at a pace that is too fast compared to the time scales of science?
    Indeed, scientists themselves are producing many more papers than few decades ago. The majority of them are not even cited once or noticed by the vast majority. One friend of mine, once polemically suggested that it would be best, probably, if each scientist were allowed to publish only five papers in his/her all life time.
    Is science still an incremental endeavor or is it getting fragmented in many sub-branches which no-one will understand or care of in 50 years time?
    As Nassim N. Taleb suggests, there is a difference between noise and signal, and it is a matter of time scale. The signal is clear in the long run but high frequencies are dominated by noise. If this is true of the stock market or of news and information in general, as he argues, it is even more true of science. Is it really better if scientist can get their paper out in one day or two rather than in one month?
    Of course, I don’t have answers to these questions. But they make it hard for me to share your enthusiasm for the use of Internet in scientific research.

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