III Intellectual independence is something I personally hold dearly as a theoretical physicist; and respect very much when I see reflected in senior scientists. I think some sort of Intellectual Independence Index should be one of the metrics used to judge a theorist; though I admittedly do not have a good sense of exactly how to quantify it.
My primary scientific motto can be summed up as:
Listen to and learn from others, but always think for oneself.
I have always thought all of us theorists should be doing so; but with the intense pressure to publish frequently, I believe it is not at all the norm. If the latter is indeed true — how does one properly measure it? — then this is yet another reason for my worry that the integrity of theoretical physics will be gradually eroded away: namely, where are the checks-&-balances from independent minds? A recent article in Scientific American pointed out:
…… Of course, reputations for good work affect scientists as much as anyone else, but one or two “real” advances by a researcher will erase any downside to even a litany of other findings that disappeared into the trash pile of time since no one else can reproduce them. Indeed, in a now famous report from Bayer Pharmaceuticals, 65 percent of published scientific findings were not reproducible by Bayer scientists when they tried to use them for drug development.
This is not an issue of scientific fraud or misconduct where scientists invent data or purposefully lie; the data are real and were really observed. However, the fiercely competitive environment leads to a haste to publish and a larger number of less rigorous papers results. Careful and self-critical scientists who spend more time and resources to carry out more rigorous and careful studies may be promoted less often, receive fewer research resources and get less recognition for their work.
I’ve always wondered what happens if we’d carefully work through the details of theoretical physics papers; how many mistakes will be found, and how many papers will turn out to be wrong? In other words, how reliable is the theoretical physics literature?
Closely related to the integrity of the science itself, is the proper attribution of intellectual credit to the researchers who have contributed to it. I find it hypocritical, Western Academia (including theoretical physics) is increasingly “woke” — for instance, the Diversity, Inclusion and Equity (DIE) religion of equal representation (as opposed to equal opportunities) is now its cultural norm — but yet there is comparatively little discussion on actual scientific accountability: namely, where it costs to signal honestly, to borrow evolution-speak. To this end, I had recommended that a statement of author contributions be made mandatory when, more than a year ago, the Physical Review journals were soliciting feedback.
Two Theoretical Physicists
I regard my PhD advisor, Tanmay Vachaspati — who is turning (or has already turned?) 60; see here for the Arizona State U conference organized to honor him — to be one of the most intellectually independent senior scientists I have ever interacted/worked with. It is not difficult to verify, Tanmay writes many papers on his own, even during the recent years. He also wrote a single-author book on topological aspects of field theory, which he gifted a copy to me upon my graduation. Tanmay certainly does not chase after the winds of fashion; but yet regularly generates ideas of his own. This is unlike many senior scientists, who become essentially project managers: sure, their names appear on many papers addressing the latest fad, but they oftentimes merely attend the meetings; ask the occasional smart question; but no longer even steer the project intellectually; let alone provide deep ploughing insights nor important guidance — especially when the going gets rough.
Although I’ve never had the privilege to meet Steven Weinberg, I find him to be an amazing theorist; not just for his past, very fundamental (Nobel prize winning) work in quantum field theory and particle physics — he played a key role in what’s now known as the Standard Model — but for remaining very active in cosmological research till now (circa 2019). As the reader may readily verify, he is also one who still writes single-author papers; not to mention recent books on cosmology and quantum mechanics. According to Wikipedia, he is now in his mid 80’s! He is most definitely a scientific role model for the rest of us theoretical physicists.
Many senior and/or famous scientists travel regularly; and they use their status/connections/influence to sit on papers where they contribute very little of actual substance. (In theoretical physics, it’s often the junior/less famous colleagues who explain the physics and technicalities to the seniors/the famous. The traffic the other way round can be rather sporadic and vague, depending on who the senior/famous physicists are, as well as the relationships of the people involved.) Because of these factors, they remain plugged into the collective wisdom of their colleagues as well as the mainstream of physics; and as such, are able to maintain their clout. Serious problems arise when the graduate student(s) gets royally stuck on a problem and do not have experienced postdocs/other graduate students to collaborate with; here, the senior adviser can prove to be of little help.
A Funding Question
Why can’t research funding be structured in a more sophisticated manner to reflect this reality, while maintaining high levels of scientific integrity? That is, senior/famous scientists could continue to be rewarded; not for their intellectual contributions (i.e., if they are no longer making any), but for running their group, hiring the right personnel, etc. While those scientists who do in fact continue to make substantive intellectual contributions to science will be rewarded for doing so. Those who manage to do both should of course be rewarded even more! This way, there will be far less pressure on senior scientists to pad their CVs with papers in which they have done little for.
My personal experiences have reinforced the need to enjoy one’s work; and, to this end, to be as intellectually independent as possible. Why pad someone else’s CV, when one can write one’s own papers. for example? This is especially the case in theoretical physics, where many would ultimately not find permanent positions.
Another of my own personal motto:
One should live for one’s own curiosity and scientific conscience.
I worked with a senior physicist a few years back, where the whole paper was my idea and the calculations were carried out entirely by myself. I put his name on the paper, to be completely honest, because I knew I needed his recommendation letter. (In this sense, I did not behave in the most scientifically ethical manner. Moreover, during a meeting later on that involved his graduate student, he reminded me I needed his recommendation letter — through no antagonism on my part. Is this professional behavior? Since then, I have developed a skeptical attitude towards the requirement of recommendation letters within Academia.) Halfway through the project, he came to learn from their then-graduate student that our “friends” were working on exactly the same problem; in particular, the first part of their work was apparently completed years ago. The short of the story is, we soon got scooped by them, once the graduate student returned to inform them of what we were doing. I had to work extra hard to do more, in order to publish a legitimate research paper. It took a couple of months to do so, and at the end of it there were some discrepancies, which I described in a footnote. These “friends” ended up accusing me (I wrote the paper) of misrepresenting their work. This senior scientist then held some private negotiations with them without me — following which, I was confronted in a one-on-one meeting with him, where he twisted my arm (figuratively speaking) and had me remove a good chunk that footnote. Suffice to say, if I had written that paper by myself, which I had the full intellectual right to do so, I would not have budged unless I was provided with valid scientific reasons. The primary problem was, because of the manner which the senior scientist dealt with the situation, I never had the chance to properly discuss with our “friends” the scientific points of disagreement! I was told by this senior scientist:
I can fight with them [our “friends”]. You cannot fight with them.
It was all politics; and zero science.
I was also very engaged with a project, based off a misguided idea of the senior scientist’s, involving his student and a senior postdoc. When the going got rough, the senior postdoc “fell off the bandwagon” (his words, not mine) and at the end of the project I requested he removed his name from the paper, because he hardly participated in the effort leading up to the primary results. For this push back, I received passive-aggressive backlash from two senior scientists. I never had the chance to speak to the graduate student on a more personal level; how this young scientist felt, given the huge amount of work expended and the low return on investment. (This young scientist has recently left Academia.)
Remark The career trajectory of this senior postdoc taught me how important politics is within Academia. To be sure, he is highly competent and well educated. But it was clear to outsiders his particularly close relationship to his supervisors meant that he appeared on nearly every paper they put out — regardless of how much work he had actually exerted. I have never understood why this is scientifically acceptable behavior.
A physicist friend of mine told me a story involving a former student — whom I will denote as X — of those “friends” I described above. (She is now faculty.) X was supposed to work with my friend and a senior scientist, but did not end up contributing much. Still, X strong-armed herself onto the paper. As I understand it, she was working on a parallel paper — that all 3 of them were supposed to write together as a follow-up project — and proceeded to scoop her 2 collaborators (i.e., my friend and the senior scientist).
Remark I fear the behavior of theoretical physicists will become increasingly unethical, as the number of tenure-track/permanent jobs dwindle and the pressure to publish frequently increases. I wish senior scientists, instead of playing politics, would set good examples; and show the proper moral leadership to set up the right (dis)incentives so that high scientific standards will be properly maintained.
I mentored another senior faculty’s student for more than a year — suggesting a project and supervising it through. At the end of the project, I was somewhat bemused that — although this senior scientist did not contribute very much — there was not only zero acknowledgement from his end, he asked if I were going to write a strong letter for the student. Now, I’m a believer of proper scientific mentor-ship; so I supposed he meant well for the student, and hence immediately proceeded to inform him I had already done so. But as far as intellectual credit is concerned, is it perhaps too presumptuous of me to question: who really has the moral and scientific authority to question me in this situation — for, I was in fact the student’s de facto primary adviser; and, furthermore, shouldn’t my reference letter ought to be an independent assessment of the young scientist?
I met a remarkable physicist while taking a year off between my Master’s degree from Yale and re-starting my PhD program at Case. He was initially working on String Theory for the most part of his PhD; but towards the end, discovered he wanted to work on Loop Quantum Gravity instead. He did in fact manage to switch fields; though he has since spent an unreasonable amount of time (in my humble opinion) as a postdoc, despite being consistently research-active. I truly hope a scientist with his intellectual independence will soon be rewarded with a tenure-track position!
Theoretical physics still attracts highly intelligent and competent people; and I’ve personally met quite a few of them. While I admire them for their intellectual prowess, I have yet to meet a contemporary that shares my concern for the hyper-competitive environment that I fear is leading to an erosion of our Scientific Integrity. To be clear, collaborations can be very beneficial to Science itself, by bringing together people with different expertise, etc. But given the current climate, I do encourage theorists to set some of their time aside — as well as gather one’s intellectual courage — to write their own papers!