We discussed how we should fund high-risk high-reward proposals of novel ideas, proposing a new review system for transformative research. Here we continue to talk about how startup scientists, who originate most of the disruptive ideas as history has shown, should be supported. The business world has an effective system of venture capital and angel investment for fostering risky startup companies. The academic community can certainly learn from their experience.
When we take a first look, scientific community seems to have similar funding agencies such as NSF/DOE as venture capitalists and private foundations as angel investors like in the business world. Unfortunately, the similarity stops right there. Because firstly there are no true scientific startups for such venture investment to support and secondly funding entities don’t know how to support even if they get the chance.
Let’s first see how the economic world is organized. As far as scales are concerned, a healthy economy includes roughly three components: some giant companies leading the current trends of the business; many medium-sized enterprises consisting of the backbone; last but probably most critical, a lot of small startups serving as the next growth points of the economy.
The scientific community seems to be very good at forming giant and medium-sized entities over the years with the current funding/tenure system. For example, in physics, we have giant collaborations at big facilities like LHC, dark matter search, LIGO, etc., which are leading the research in the hot-topic frontiers. Most of the other multiple-PI (Principal Investigator) groups are medium-sized. These two categories take up most of the resources and are also responsible in training the next generation mainstream researchers.
In principle, the single PI groups should play the role like the business startups. Or at least the tenure-track professors in universities should. In reality, their roles are totally different. In their early career, they are under an enormous amount of pressure to get tenured in typically six years plus possibly many years spent as a postdoc. Therefore most likely they would take a safe route of pursuing hot-topic research and following more authoritative figures’ footsteps in their field. Under such an ordeal, they are no longer able to do any truly disruptive research once they become tenured or truly independent. For those who dare not to follow such a route, they are most likely eliminated in the process.
In scientific enterprises, there are currently no true organized startups like their counterparts in the business world. For a true startup, it needs to be independent from giants’ manipulation and have long term support of venture investment to survive and grow. In the academic world, postdoctoral positions are supposed to provide such opportunities. Unfortunately, very few of them are independent and are often associated with large research groups. In addition, the term is typically too short like 1-3 years. The much fewer tenure-track professorships are better but still pressured as mentioned above in the current (3-year + 3-year) evaluation system. After 10-20 years of conformity to mainstream research, eventually tenured scientists are no longer in their golden age and period for conducting any transformative research. They have more likely gotten used to the safe approaches (i.e., incremental efforts) and may even become the obstructions preventing acceptance of future disruptive ideas by next-generation researchers.
Then where can we find academic startups and how can we support and foster them? Probably the best idea is to make most postdoctoral researchers independent with long term support (10 years, renewable, or even indefinitely). In colleges, they can shoulder most of teaching duties to sponsor their positions. In research laboratories, they can be in charge of various small-scale research projects or maintain the operation of scientific equipment and the laboratory. In addition, they could also collaborate freely with each other and go after larger-scale projects.
Contrarily, tenure-track positions are useless and should be eliminated. Instead, a professorship should be awarded with tenure based on one’s achievements. One of the most important criteria is on quality of achievements, but not on quantities. Anyone (i.e., one in the postdoc pool) who wants to be promoted to a professorship should submit an application with one, three, or at most five achievements for evaluation. Better yet, a university can take the initiative to evaluate the most achieved postdocs for promotion.
For example, only achievements with 2 points (“substantial”) or higher are counted (see details of the point system in my previous blog or brief info at the end of this essay). Postdocs who have made at least three “substantial” achievements can be promoted to associate professor with tenure. Whoever has achieved one “breakthrough” in research can be awarded with full professorship. One who has made one piece of “disruptive” contribution to science will be in chaired professorship. We should never count number of one’s papers or citations. One can make thousands of incremental or useless works and they will still count as nothing. This will prevent researchers from concentrating on works of little significance. The only exception is that one can do systematically incremental works that are collectively developed into a cohesive program to be counted “substantial” or even “breakthrough”.
Even within the postdoc pool, we could introduce more levels based on their intermediate achievements. For example, entry level does not have any achievement requirement (possibly “incremental” works during PhD would be enough). The middle level (possibly with longer term) requires one “substantial” achievement while the highest level (with even longer or indefinite term) needs two such achievements. Any better achievements should lead to professorships discussed above.
Under such a system, postdocs are truly backbones of scientific research. Professorships are just the awards for some of the most achieved ones among them. These postdoc positions do not have to be high-pay jobs so that we can support more capable and enthusiastic young scientists in colleges and laboratories. As a matter of fact, low-paying entry-level positions could deter opportunistic people from joining in the labor force. Hopefully only talents with an enduring enthusiasm and concentration will stay. Adding the quality requirements for promotion, the academic world will be much less polluted with useless papers and trash projects.
Like in the business world, academic startups are the hope of our human society’s continuous flourishing future. They are the main force for truly transformative innovations while they are prone to oppression by academic authoritarians if we don’t protect them well. With the above-discussed startup system truly established in the academic world and complemented by the new review system for transformative proposals , I believe that scientific research will come back to its renewed prosperity.
POINT SYSTEM for quality of achievements:
Significance: “revolutionary” (5 points) (Newton & Einstein, every ~500-1000 years); “disruptive” (4) (Heisenberg, QM, ~50-100 yrs); “breakthrough” (3) (Nobel prize-level, ~5-10 yrs); “substantial” (2) (good PRL-level, ~1yr); “incremental” (1) (ordinary routine works); “useless” (0); “detrimental” (-1 point) — the last two categories should not be published at all