Fund people. Not projects

Nintil writes:

The Newton hypothesis seems true, as far as citations are concerned: science is advanced by a small elite. Citations at least on a first pass do seem to correlate with “good science” both casually (Highly cited classic papers) and by assessment of peers (Nobel prize panels; Nobel-winning papers are highly cited, and cite highly cited research). One can always make the critique that citations are not objectively measuring the worth of a piece of work. But what would? Yes, citations happen for all sorts of reasons (Including to garner favor with reviewers or other labs that might be more inclined to cite the paper if they are cited as well) but chiefly they happen because the work cited did influence the paper. There are various levels of epistemic nihilism one can go, culminating into the “We can’t ever know who or what will be successful” so we should fund everyone equally, maximally equalizing funding. I don’t agree with this, and will discuss scientific egalitarianism and lotteries in the next part of this series. I think this thinking can play a role in how science is organized, but not the only role.

This is a remarkable essay with incredible takeaways.

Some salient points:

Think about the following situation: Imagine that only a handful of scientists at every point in time are able to –if given the time and means–lead revolutions on par with the work of Darwin, Einstein, or Galileo (This is an extreme case admittedly because most of science does not look like this; most of science is more incremental and less memorable).
Braben, whose book Scientific Freedom I reviewed says that even though most scientists could be the next Einstein if they tried, only a few will even try:
It is possible that my message may be seen as elitist and of interest only to those very few scientists who might be putative members of a twenty – first century Planck Club.
In physics, Lee Smolin is even more on the elitist side, with even fewer scientists in the revolutionaries’ club:
“But when it comes to theoretical physics, we are not talking about much money at all.
In physics, there has been no progress in the fundamentals of the field since the 70s, so one could argue that perhaps there are key assumptions that need to be thrown away, that there is a strong need for funding what to many physicists seem obviously wrong.
In that case peer review may be stifling progress: physics could benefit from less clever math and more philosophical thought, going back to the mode of thinking of Einstein et al.
Biology is probably less of a Kuhnian world than physics is, given that biology has fewer strong assumptions baked in that would have to be overthrown and thus count as a revolution
In biology, in contrast with physics, whatever the current framework is (if any), it continues to be extremely fruitful.
None of these examples of good science (Or perhaps engineering if you count the last 2) are paradigm shifts but without any doubt CRISPR has been highly useful and influential, both in academia, and soon in the clinic.
(2014) note there are 15M scientists that published anything in the 1996-2011 period, but only 1% that has published every single year in this period.
Shockley finds a log-normally distribution of publications and patents: Most scientists publish very little and a progressively smaller count publish increasingly more.
There’s the observation of Lotka’s law (Yes, it’s the same Lotka as in Lotka-Volterra) that says that the relative frequency of authors with a given number of publications follows a power law that scales with the square of the number of articles published; for example out of 100 scientists who publishes at least 1 article, only 1 will publish 10 articles.
The precise exponent may vary by discipline (Pao, 1985), but each one does seem to follow the same pattern: A handful of people publish an overwhelming fraction of all the papers.
We could say “We only remember a handful of scientists that advanced modern physics, so that must imply you only need that handful”.
Back in the early 20th century, how many physicists did “useful” work that ended up leading to currently accepted and useful knowledge?
Turns out there are more physicists than just the famous ones (Perhaps we are biased towards those that worked in one particular area that ended up changing the foundations of physics).
It wouldn’t be enough to just count all the names in the Geschichtstafeln and then try to come up with a total count of physicists; even that book can be undercounting physicists that still contributed (For example, that were cited by the authors mentioned in the book).