The blog of Valerio Olevano about Scientific Research

A reflection about plagues affecting scientific research

"Why no 'New Einstein'?"

Einstein Was Right! Einstein was right! - Mannerism physics - This web site presents a reflection on the actual situation of scientific research with respect to what it was since Galileo and Newton, and till Curie, Einstein and Feynman times. At the end of the 19th century Lord Kelvin declared: "There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement." [1Lord Kelvin, speech to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1900.]. Mannerism, Giulio Romano, The fall of the Giants But in the following years the foundations of classical physics were completely shaken by the revolutions of quantum mechanics and relativity. Today nobody has this feeling, we all know to still have serious unsolved problems. But no revolution is in view. Actually we are just doing "more and more precise measurements". Recent great discoveries are predictions of theories formulated more than 50 years ago. This is the case for the Higgs boson in 2012, predicted in 1964. But in particular for the most recent, gravitational waves in 2016, the black hole in 2019. The headlines of newspapers announcing all these great discoveries, including the Bose-Einstein condensation in 1995, or the accelerating expansion of the universe in 1998, invariably reported always the same repeated sentence: "Einstein was right!". And all these are the great discoveries: the rest of us is adding a tiny ε, or improving the candle instead to invent the light bulb. So, after having achieved the highest summits in the first half of the 20th century, we live since the '60s in a period where we are only able to demonstrate, again and again, that Einstein was right. To make a parallel with history of art, physics entered into a declining Mannerism period living in the admiration of the ideals by the Einstein, Curie, Bohr, Schrödinger, Dirac, Fermi... And Baroque and Rococo physics seem already on the horizon. L. Smolin, Why No New Einstein? Why no 'New Einstein'? was a 2005 article by L. Smolin which started discussions in academic environments. Nobody denied the pertinence and the relevance of Smolin's question. There is a common feeling that the today research environment is radically different from what it was in past times when "Einsteins" emerged. Starting from Smolin, everybody contributed their own view about the causes of this question and the major problems affecting scientific research. In my opinion, Smolin's view is restricted to only one field and to the scientific controversy about string theory and alternatives in which he is personally involved. Problems are much more serious and lie well outside purely scientific topics/disputes. They rather invest the operating mechanisms of scientific research itself. New facts, what I call "plagues", were introduced and radically changed the way scientific research is done today with respect to how it was done at Einstein's times. Bibliometry - One of the most known plagues goes under the name of bibliometry. Bibliometry was introduced no later than the '80s as a complex of mechanisms and indices to numerically measure the so called "scientific excellence". There is no doubt that bibliometry radically altered our way to do scientific research. If yesterday the ambitious young scientist woke up in the morning with the thought: "Which great open question of physics or millennium problem of mathematics can I attack and solve?, today the same ambitious young scientist rather wakes up with the thought: "How can I find a way to enter and publish into these high impact factor (IF) journals?" You can see that the perspective is radically different. Today we are all running behind "scientific excellence", but we are only achieving "scientific mediocrity". Publish or perish - Bibliometry is by many considered the major plague affecting scientific research, but it is not the only one. The so-called publish or perish paradigm was one of the first plagues to appear in scientific research. (It may be considered the precursor of the refined bibliometry that we know today). The publish or perish itself is the cause of the exponential growth, a real explosion in the number of publications, Excellence programs to finance research - Another plague is the introduction of so-called "excellence programs" to finance scientific research conform to so-called "excellence criteria", in turns related to bibliometry. Billion financing programs, like the EU Flagships, are creating real disasters in scientific research. And this wrong model of financing is propagated from the high levels down, to the level of states and single universities. Fashion-like research - In a bibliometry dominated system, research lines are dictated by the editors of high-IF journals, and the dictamen is reinforced by financing agencies. All we researchers, like flocks of sheep, crowd around research lines that cyclically emerge, culminate, to finally fade down without keeping the initial bombastic promises. With these cycles, research looks like fashion. A hystorical survey of fashioned research lines include: superlattices, fullerenes, nanotubes further expanded into nanosciences, graphene further expanded into 2D-systems (a reedition of the superlattices fashion but on hexagonal instead than cubic systems), Dirac fermions, Majorana fermions, Weyl fermions, topological matter... Apart from false allegations of pretended revolutions of our lives, these fashioned research lines only served to boost the IF of journals and the H-indices of all the researchers who crowded around. Precarious condition of researchers - Strongly conditioned by how scientific research is financed, is the evolution of the work, of the job of researchers. At Einstein's times the researcher was a free mind. Today the researcher is a slave. At the service of the fashioned research lines. The today model of research is the army: those who are really doing research are post-docs, non-permanent positions with contracts of two years. The post-docs are the soldiers organized in companies at the service of a big-shot professor, the general, the only with a permanent position. The generals, less ans less involved in research, do the bureaucracy to write and present research proposals to agencies that are going to finance the post-doc salaries. The post-doc/soldiers are mere executors of the research orders given by the generals, completely submitted to them. It is a real scandal to see post-docs having passed their 40s and even their 50s, still renewing their N-th contract and in the hope that their general will finally open a permanent position for them. Lucrative scientific publishing - The actual situation of scientific publishing, driven by lucrative purposes rather than the historical noble purposes of "advancing and diffusing the scientific knowledge", is also seriously worrisome. The "open access" paradigm was proposed to overcome this serious problem. At the beginning major publishers were scared about the open access and the appearance of the arXiv. But then they found the way to live with, and even to turn it at their advantage by transforming the original noble open access into gold open access. Blind peer review - So, in my opinion the bibliometry is not even the most serious plague. All of them are certainly related, but identifying which is the cause and which is the consequence is not that easy. In particular I consider an important cause something that many don't even see as a problem of scientific research (although they see serious problems in it as well, and propose reforming it): this is the blind peer review system. For this reason, in this web site, I will first discuss the issue of the blind peer review system. All other issues are already at length discussed in many occasions, round tables, publications, web sites, etc. Not the blind peer review which, in my opinion, has a high probability to be the primary cause of all other plagues. My motivations - My analysis and understanding of the system might be not perfect, but I think they grasp the essential dynamics. I could have exploited this analysis for my personal advantages, my career. A correct analysis and adaptation to the system, exploitation of any possibility which is given, finding the own way through the actual system, are the key towards success. Instead, I decided to follow the most controversial way and do a public report of degenerations and plagues affecting scientific research. Why? I realized that I like less and less the environment where I work. I could not suffer any more any further degeneration of the system. When some years ago I decided that this was my work and my life, it was for following the way traced by the fathers and mothers of physics. Not that I hoped to achieve their level, but at least to follow their footprints. Instead, "Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a forest dark, For the straightforward pathway had been lost." The forest dark is the present degenerated system, and we go in all another direction. If the success or the career was my only motivation, I could have well chosen another field, finance for instance, which can pay back much better. For all these reasons I decided to start to fight against the plagues of the system. We cannot leave to the next generation a world worst than we have received. I am well conscious to attract ill-feelings, resentments, even rancours from my colleagues who may see my arguments as a criticism. I hereby wish to state that my intent is not at all to criticize my colleagues. Or at most only a small 1% of them who are actively contributing to the introduction in the system of more and more unhealthy plagues. Surely not the 99% who are just only trying to cope with the system in order to go on with their work. I am also in the system and obliged to cope with it. I am not a Pharisee without sin.

If you wish to post a comment or a criticism, contribute to the discussion, tell us your experience, etc. write me (valerio.olevano AT