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How Scientists Know An Idea Is a Good One

Soulskill posted about a year and a half ago | from the does-it-involve-lasers dept.

Science 140

Physicist Chris Lee explains one of the toughest judgment calls scientists have to make: figuring out if their crazy ideas are worth pursuing. He says: "Research takes resources. I don't mean money—all right, I do mean money—but it also requires time and people and lab space and support. There is a human and physical infrastructure that I have to make use of. I may be part of a research organization, but I have no automatic right of access to any of this infrastructure. ... This also has implications for scale. A PhD student has the right to expect a project that generates a decent body of work within those four years. A project that is going to take eight years of construction work before it produces any scientific results cannot and should not be built by a PhD student. On the other hand, a project that dries up in two years is equally bad. ... the core idea also needs to be structured so, should certain experiments not work, they still build something that can lead to experiments which do work. Or, if the cool new instrument we want to build can't measure exactly what I intended, there are other things it can measure. One of those other things must be fairly certain of success. To put it bluntly: all paths must lead to results of some form."

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What? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43196265)

What do you want to tell us with that?

Re:What? (1)

flyneye (84093) | about a year and a half ago | (#43196285)

That there is a little math that should be done when faced with the old " It can be done, but , should it be done?" question
$= (time + obtanium) / desire * beer

Re:What? (2, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43196417)

It is obvious that you're a mathematician. Your equation is dimensionally wrong.

Re:What? (0)

flyneye (84093) | about a year and a half ago | (#43196509)

It's a philosofmatic equation.
Bring a solution ,not a complaint, because it looks like a whine,makes you sound like a lil girl.

Re:What? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43197465)

Lazy shit.
In other words, you want other to do the work for you.

Re:What? (1)

flyneye (84093) | about a year and a half ago | (#43197901)

I see you're not familiar with the curriculum of the Subgenius Foundation.
All Slack flows from Bob to those who've paid their dues.

Re:What? (5, Funny)

show me altoids (1183399) | about a year and a half ago | (#43196671)

It is obvious that you're a mathematician. Your equation is dimensionally wrong.

No, it's correct. Let's do the analysis: $= (time + obtanium) / desire * beer
time is in seconds
obtanium is in seconds (how long to obtain it)
desire is in seconds/liter (the longer you wait, the more you want)
beer is in dollars/liter
so we have (seconds + seconds)/(seconds/liter) * (dollars/liter) = dollars
Q.E.D.

Re:What? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43197311)

you guys (as well as all the scientists) could save themselves a lot of time by using this simple technique - if a story features on slashdot then it's almost certainly crap.

if you wanna talk about apple then this is certainly the place to be, serious scientific matters, don't make me laugh!!!

Re:What? (1)

sanman2 (928866) | about a year and a half ago | (#43198129)

Is beer in the denominator, because then the limit of $ as beer approaches infinity is zero, which is contradicted by reality.

Re:What? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43198215)

That seems consistent to me as beer is not free. Now consider the limit of $ as beer approaches zero, that is interesting!

Re:What? (2)

flyneye (84093) | about a year and a half ago | (#43196309)

The triangle of supply and demand works in this case as well.
Good/ Fast/ Cheap
          Pick any two. Then use the profit algorithmic function to determine if the time utilized is an asset or boat anchor.

Re:What? (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43196373)

Booty, booty, booty! I want to fill a pussy hole with cum!

Re:What? (2)

rossdee (243626) | about a year and a half ago | (#43196917)

"Good/ Fast/ Cheap
                    Pick any two. Then use the profit algorithmic function to determine if the time utilized is an asset or boat anchor.
--"

Fast and cheap may be easy to measure, good on the other hand is not so easy.

For example, during the early years of the cold war it was thought that nukes would be a fast and cheap way to deal with a Russian invasion of Europe.
(and it would kill plrnty of commies, so it was obviously good as well, however the radiation and nuclear winter effects would have killed most of the rest of us, but they didn't know that at the time.

Re:What? (1)

flyneye (84093) | about a year and a half ago | (#43197367)

More akin to quantum mechanics.
If it's fast and cheap, it won't be good
If it's good and fast it won't be cheap
If it's good and cheap, it won't be fast.
Motivational modifiers from the other equation can then be applied.
Is the profit $ equal to or greater than, the time and raw material, divided by your personal interest and the amount of beer you can expend for the project?
Utilizing these mathematics we can proceed with a quantum magnet that reduces the chance answer from a Schrödinger's magic 8 ball to either "Chances are good" or " Options look bleak".
To explore abstracts like ideas with statistically derived methods to define the problem is folly, in that, a bigger picture is needed rather than a detail and will result with the equivalent of urinating into a north wind on a cold day.
Relativistically ,it's outcome is tied to the mandelbrot set dependent on the researcher involved and the brand / volume of beer consumed.
Nothing hard about decisions to proceed, with some simple math first.
It came from the same classes you and I had in Gravitational Yoga and Round Earth Theory.

Re:What? (2)

davester666 (731373) | about a year and a half ago | (#43197541)

That's why everything is fast and cheap.

Re:What? (1)

khallow (566160) | about a year and a half ago | (#43197547)

For example, during the early years of the cold war it was thought that nukes would be a fast and cheap way to deal with a Russian invasion of Europe.

And they were correct. It's worth noting that the USSR after the Second World War was far less aggressive militarily than the one previous to the war. They didn't invade another country directly until Hungary in 1956 while they had invaded a quite a number prior to the war (and were a huge contributor to starting the Second World War).

Re:What? (1)

guitardood (934630) | about a year and a half ago | (#43197499)

It's more like the square of supply and demand:

Price, Performance, Product & Delivery.

Pick two.

Re:What? (1)

flyneye (84093) | about a year and a half ago | (#43197913)

I like that. It applies more to the luthiery division of my company.

Re:What? (1)

zAPPzAPP (1207370) | about a year and a half ago | (#43197601)

goodness = (1 - p(random explosion))

Iron triangle (1)

Hognoxious (631665) | about a year and a half ago | (#43198021)

The triangle of supply and demand, where one of the sides isn't supply and neither of the others is demand?

Don't repeat stuff you've misheard while listening to the grownups. It makes you look stupid.

He tells us... (1)

Roger W Moore (538166) | about a year and a half ago | (#43196837)

...that he has no clue about particle physics. Building the ATLAS detector took well over 8 years and PhD students were involved. They worked on detector R&D, performance studies etc. as well as simulation of the physics the detector would eventually be able to detect. Not everyone can do their physics in their own lab with their own group of students and postdocs. Some physics requires huge machines and detectors and that necessitates long construction times...and if this guy poked his head outside his lab once or twice he would know that!

Re:He tells us... (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43197065)

The PhD students working on something like ATLAS certainly were working on projects that took less than 8 years to construct. Yes, they contributed to a larger project that took much longer, but what they were individually working on had to still fit in the timescale of a PhD program. Either you are purposely misconstruing what was meant by the story,, or simply not thinking when you typed out basically agreeing that a thesis project needs to have narrower scope to match the time requirements

but ... (0)

tibbar (30026) | about a year and a half ago | (#43196293)

mathematicians only need chalk
(apropos: http://xkcd.com/435/ [xkcd.com] )

Re:but ... (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43196297)

mathematicians only need chalk (apropos: http://xkcd.com/435/ [xkcd.com] )

Filthy nigger.

Re:but ... (3, Insightful)

turkeyfish (950384) | about a year and a half ago | (#43196409)

The good ones need ink as well.

yet Math is applied Logic (3, Interesting)

Eric Coleman (833730) | about a year and a half ago | (#43196813)

To continue the CKXD comic,

Math is applied Logic
Logic is applied Philosophy
Philosophy is applied Sociology

and "the circle is now complete."

For certain values of "good" (5, Insightful)

LordLucless (582312) | about a year and a half ago | (#43196305)

That's not a description of a good idea. That's a description of an idea that fits into an arbitrary 4-year timescale that fits with a PhD program's average length.

Re:For certain values of "good" (1)

sferics (189924) | about a year and a half ago | (#43196333)

Mods... before you rate this as insightful... read the article, maybe?

Re:For certain values of "good" (4, Funny)

FairAndHateful (2522378) | about a year and a half ago | (#43197155)

read the article, maybe?

No time! I need to post within an arbitrary slashdot timescale that fits with getting modded up!

Re:For certain values of "good" (1)

interkin3tic (1469267) | about a year and a half ago | (#43196381)

I've heard the average time to get a PhD has increased to 5 years, though I couldn't immediately find a citation for that, so it could just be something one of my fellow grad students said to make ourselves worry about graduating on time less.

There's also some wiggle room in either. Maybe some physics projects take necessarily 8 years or so, but with many projects in at least cell biology, you can speed it up or shape it to your timescale. Publishing as is, without all the experiments that could be done, also happens, leaving stuff for the next student, a postdoct, or the lab head to finish up. A project that only lasts 2 years doesn't happen very often: there's almost always more experiments to do, push the knowledge further. I can't think of any biologist who could say "And that's basically all there is to research in this particular project: DONE."

When I choose what to research, length of study is not really a big concern.

Re:For certain values of "good" (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43196439)

I can only speak for my own field (physics), but the national average length of a Ph.D. is almost 7 years. This is according to an AIP study I read about 8 years ago. There is a large spike at 5 years (theorists) and a long tail on the high end (experimentalists). Also, during the first two years before you qualify for candidacy you are rather inundated by classwork. In which case, aiming for 4 year project sounds about right. It allows for a bit of a buffer for when things break.

Re:For certain values of "good" (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43196599)

It is highly dependent on local conditions. In France, PhDs are by definition 3 years long.

The main point is unaffected by the value of this number, though, just that it exists and is hopefully a small fraction of a person's career.

Re:For certain values of "good" (2)

ACluk90 (2618091) | about a year and a half ago | (#43196741)

In Switzerland at ETH Zurich a PhD usually takes approx. 5 years. Starting a PhD program here requires a Master's degree which is usually obtained after 5 years of studying (master and bachelor together).

Re:For certain values of "good" (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43197091)

Does that require a Master's degree first though? The 5-7 year PhD programs in the US essentially combines the master's and PhD programs, so you start with a 4 year degree. Some times all you need to get a master's degree while doing a PhD program is to fill out a form half way through, other cases the students don't get a master's degree because it has a slightly different requirement. The place I went would have required me to take a couple more classes for the master's degree, as it required a certain amount of classes while the PhD required much fewer. At such a place though, typically taking the classes you need to qualify for their qualifier test, plus another one or two specific to your field, plus a required lab course, got you pretty close. But many still end up not getting a master's while going for the PhD because they skipped on of those intro classes, already having the background, or went into an area that didn't have as many courses covering advanced topics.

Re:For certain values of "good" (2)

bitingduck (810730) | about a year and a half ago | (#43197153)

Almost everybody I know who got both a masters and PhD in physics did it for one of two reasons-- 1) they started grad work at a smaller school that didn't have a PhD program (or not much of one) and switched to a larger/better program 2) they expected to work at large companies (e.g. 3M) where the pay scale gave you slightly more money if you had a masters+PhD than PhD alone, even if all you did for the masters was fill out a few extra forms and bind up some intermediate result (that you had anyway) into a thesis.

Re:For certain values of "good" (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43197707)

Some places have the option for both a master's with thesis and a master's without thesis. In which case, those that I knew who took enough classes, because the school happened to offer a lot of classes in their field, did just fill out a form and get a masters along the way. That said, sometimes when you see someone get a masters in a field like physics, it could mean they were considering dropping out of the PhD program and were trying to get something out of the effort even if they failed to get the PhD. As such, some people see it as a red flag, but you really shouldn't because of how at some schools or in some situations it doesn't mean much in the context of a PhD program, one way or another.

Or, a series of small interrelated projects (1)

G3ckoG33k (647276) | about a year and a half ago | (#43197109)

Or, a series of small interrelated projects.

That is the customary approach I've seen the last decade.

scope is very imp. (1)

Faisal Rehman (2424374) | about a year and a half ago | (#43196351)

intuition, foresee and application area is required, before getting your hands dirty or diving, foremost imp. is scope, problem definition and then title.

Failures are very necessary part of science (4, Insightful)

prasadsurve (665770) | about a year and a half ago | (#43196375)

Science as a process is like Natural selection and just as in Natural selection, one may come with the dead end. This is not necessarily bad.
To quote Thomas A. Edison, "If I find 10,000 ways something won't work, I haven't failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward".

Re:Failures are very necessary part of science (2)

TapeCutter (624760) | about a year and a half ago | (#43196823)

Yep, an experiment that fails can be just as informative as the one that works. Personally I think the summary of TFS of TFA is stating the obvious, "all paths must lead to results of some form" - without results it's not a Phd, it's not even a paper, it's just an opinion.

Re:Failures are very necessary part of science (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43197305)

If the information gained from failure is not interesting enough to grant a PhD, then you've just wasted 4 years of someone's life and they still can't get a PhD. So failure isn't always so great. The summary explained it well: you have to set things up so that even failures will yield something interesting enough. That isn't always the case.

Re:Failures are very necessary part of science (5, Insightful)

jasnw (1913892) | about a year and a half ago | (#43197439)

While you are theoretically correct, you are real-world dead-in-the-water. A big problem with getting science funding these days is what I'll call the Golden Fleece Award Effect (for Sen. William Proxmire's Golden Fleece Award - wikipdeida it). While funding organizations are well aware that a solid negative result in a difficult research area is just as pertinent and useful as a positive one, Congress (the source of all funding) doesn't understand it and doesn't like it. Money out needs to be balanced by succes in. I know many researchers who do 90% of the research needed for a given NSF (or NASA) proposal before they propose it so they can (a) show it will indeed result in success, and (b) it will succeed so they can get more NSF funding. Nothing breeds lack of funding like failure. This is a dumb-ass way to do science, but since all funding comes from the Kingdom of the Dumbasses you get what you'd expect.

Re:Failures are very necessary part of science (1)

liquid_schwartz (530085) | about a year and a half ago | (#43198393)

Nothing breeds lack of funding like failure.

If only that were true for "War on terror", "War on Drugs", and a host of "Great Society" programs.

Re:Failures are very necessary part of science (1)

m00sh (2538182) | about a year and a half ago | (#43197721)

There might be infinite ways something won't work. There is no inherent guarantee that it's finite and even if it's finite, it's a small finite number.

4 years.. (4, Informative)

dlenmn (145080) | about a year and a half ago | (#43196387)

A PhD student has the right to expect a project that generates a decent body of work within those four years.

Four years? Ha! That's a good one!

Re:4 years.. (3, Interesting)

dkf (304284) | about a year and a half ago | (#43196451)

A PhD student has the right to expect a project that generates a decent body of work within those four years.

Four years? Ha! That's a good one!

The easiest way to enforce that is for the awarding institution to say that if it isn't done in 4 years, it will be taken as a complete failure. Suddenly, people find that it is possible to write up in time. (Seriously, if you can't stop pissing around "doing just one more experiment" or "reading just one more paper" and write up your thesis, you're a failure as a researcher and should be publicly branded as such.)

Re:4 years.. (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43196603)

Four years? Ha! That's a good one!

The easiest way to enforce that is for the awarding institution to say that if it isn't done in 4 years, it will be taken as a complete failure.

No, that rule would result in a lot of thesis committees approving completely crap theses. Believe it or not, thesis committee members are human and have a lot of difficulty telling kids that their last four (or five, or eight) years of work are worth no recognition and please leave. Thesis advisors become emotionally attached to their students and want to see the succeed/graduate, even if those students are incompetent. Sometimes you can compensate for the incompetence with time. Only rarely will a thesis committee 'over-rule' the advisor, with their input generally taking the form of 'this would become acceptable if the student adds [foo] over the next year or so.' Mandated time to completion is a recipe for diminishing the quality of theses and migrating a PhD from someone prepared for reasonably independent work to a glorified MS. Probably already moving in that direction, as many 'PhD's aren't really ready to work independently until they've finished two or more post-doctoral internships.

Re:4 years.. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43197133)

A lot of institutions have policies like that in place already. They give a maximum time from when you enter to when you can start on a thesis project, and then give a maximum number of years you work on the project. At my place it was five years from when you entered candidacy (which had to be done within 3 years of starting), giving a total of 8, although you could start your thesis research before entering candidacy. The department had additional requirements, that if you started taking a long time, you had to justify that you were still making progress. There was a way to get around the time limit, but it required convening a committee and demonstrating to them you had good reason for taking so long and were almost done, because if not, they had the power to kick you out of the program.

Some fields it looks bad to take too long to get the degree anyways, so dragging your feet will have everyone telling you you're digging a hole. But there are some exceptions, especially some areas where experiment programs (space probe launches...) or experiment failures meaning having to take an extra year or two. The other big thing that comes up, is that especially in some theoretical fields, it can take a long time to get a postdoc position. So you will basically get your thesis finished, and then sit on it until you get a job. You use the meantime to produce more papers. That is how some PhD degrees in physics, based at least on several people I knew and talked to, end up taking 8-9 years. They had a thesis done well before that, but were waiting for an opening in a small field.

Re:4 years.. (1)

smallfries (601545) | about a year and a half ago | (#43197409)

I think that you underestimate the value of soft modes of failure, particularly in maintaining quality standards. Examiners are human and it is much easier to say "not yet" than it is to say "and you're out of here".

Re:4 years.. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43198067)

A PhD taking longer than four years has nothing todo with a graduate student being lazy. Shit happens sometimes that beyond the control of the researcher. You have no control over when a critical piece of equipment breaks.

Read the literature... or not (3, Insightful)

StripedCow (776465) | about a year and a half ago | (#43196401)

A big part of the problem is that there are few negative results in scientific literature. Ever found a paper with a clear negative outcome? I didn't. This "positive bias" in scientific publications is probably causing a major blow to the efficiency of scientific research.

Re:Read the literature... or not (3, Insightful)

turkeyfish (950384) | about a year and a half ago | (#43196441)

There is a reason why you are wrong. There aren't enough forests to support publishing all possible negative results or enough time to read them. More aptly, there are plenty of "negative" results in the scientific literature. If you count the number of scientific papers that are in disagreement on a particular point, there are a great many of them. Science works best, when there is actually evidence gathered to accept or reject a particular scientific hypothesis. A purely negative result can be obtained without taking any data at all and hence, is of little value in advancing science.

Re:Read the literature... or not (1)

StripedCow (776465) | about a year and a half ago | (#43196511)

Let me put it another way: assume you are starting a research project just now (perhaps you are starting your PhD), and some wizard would approach you and ask you if you'd like to receive, instantly, complete knowledge of all negative results in your field. Would your answer be "yes" or "no"?

Science is not about "value" or "usefulness". Science just expands knowledge about the universe, regardless of whether it is good or bad knowledge, whatever that may mean.

When an astronomer reports about a star that collapsed into a black hole, is that good or bad? Is that failure or success? Of course, it would probably be more helpful if the researcher reported a method that prevented the star from collapsing. Nevertheless, something can be learned from the report. Perhaps, if the researcher details the mechanisms that lead to the collapse of the star, somebody else can later find a "cure" for collapsing stars.

Similarly, if I report about a failed experiment, it represents something others can learn from, and it may help them doing experiments the right way.

Re:Read the literature... or not (1)

SomeKDEUser (1243392) | about a year and a half ago | (#43196803)

The correct answer to that wizard is no. Also, if someone tells you you can have all the knowledge in the world, this is a nasty trick they are playing on you.

This is because knowledge is largely useless, only relevant knowledge is valuable. Also, the number of negative results in any field is probable infinite and uncountable. Although it is useful to know that this or that theory which had some data supporting it is wrong (a false positive, and a publication of a negative result), it is not useful to know that this other theory no one ever thought was right except perhaps you in your lab is in fact wrong.

Re:Read the literature... or not (1)

turkeyfish (950384) | about a year and a half ago | (#43197623)

You seem to misunderstand what one can learn from a negative result.

A negative result is in a sense like determining that a function is non-linear, Knowing that some phenomenon behaves as a linear function is a very tight constraint upon what one can subsequently infer about that phenomenon, since there is only one way to interpret linearity. On the other hand, simply knowing that a function in non-linear, doesn't place much of a constraint at all, since there are an infinite number of ways of begin non-linear, none of which may necessarily be related to one another. One needs to know more about the precise nature of the function to reach any kind of conclusion, which of course, requires a subsequent experiment. It does NOT tell others "something" about the phenomenon (other than it is non-linear). The same is true of a null-hypothesis that can not be rejected. The outcome tells you NOTHING about the phenomenon you are attempting to study, except the fact that the experiment failed to result in a significant finding. Unlike a rejection of a null hypothesis, the acceptance of a null-hypothesis tells us nothing about the nature of error. If you have no estimate of error, then you are in effect making no scientific statement.

Re:Read the literature... or not (3, Insightful)

TheTurtlesMoves (1442727) | about a year and a half ago | (#43196583)

This is big problem in bioinformatics and biology in general. How many people have tried the same idea (ideas really aren't that original) only to find no literature on it and find it doesn't work. Then they don't publish. Its hard work publishing negative results. Its even harder to get it in a jornal anyone gives a crap about. Rinse and repeat....

Re:Read the literature... or not (3, Informative)

cryptolemur (1247988) | about a year and a half ago | (#43196911)

Check out Journal of Negative Results in Biomedicine: http://www.jnrbm.com/ [jnrbm.com] :-)

Anyway, I was taught early on this is one of the main reasons to attend conferences -- after seeing an interesting presentation (or even poster) about stuff close to yours, you go for a beer or two with the presenter and hear all the failures they suffered and the wrong turns they took on the way. And share your own, too.

The body of science is so much more than just the published papers, you know.

Re:Read the literature... or not (3, Interesting)

ColdWetDog (752185) | about a year and a half ago | (#43197241)

Anyway, I was taught early on this is one of the main reasons to attend conferences -- after seeing an interesting presentation (or even poster) about stuff close to yours, you go for a beer or two with the presenter and hear all the failures they suffered and the wrong turns they took on the way. And share your own, too.

And that's just one of the reasons I left academic science - people quit doing that. As funding dried up, people dried up. In fact, there were labs who had a reputation of getting it's post docs and grad students to 'hoover' the conference looking for ideas, strategies, concepts and bringing them back and working on some of the more likely leads. If that lab has eight post docs and 10 grad students, they can generally beat your solo effort if they so chose. So you didn't say much. Not much fun.

That and the beer. Man, I hate beer.

Re:Read the literature... or not (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43197449)

And that's just one of the reasons I left academic science - people quit doing that. As funding dried up, people dried up. In fact, there were labs who had a reputation of getting it's post docs and grad students to 'hoover' the conference looking for ideas, strategies, concepts and bringing them back and working on some of the more likely leads.

I've heard there is some Nobel laureate that sits on some funding board. He their reads grant proposals, and if he finds something interesting he can use, he gets his lab to quickly do the idea. He then writes, funding rejected - see already was done here :P

And this kind of stuff is not exactly new, nor is it limited to science either. It is just people like yourself expect scientists to have higher moral standard than average while in reality they don't.

Re:Read the literature... or not (1)

turkeyfish (950384) | about a year and a half ago | (#43197641)

Usually, this isn't much of a problem, since grants are so competitive these days that they must be based on already previously published results that the potential grantee seeks money to extend and explore the consequences of. No "Nobel Laureate" would be caught dead attempting to copy an idea already developed in published work and call it their own. It would be a pointless exercise that would only make them look foolish to their peers.

Personal connections (2)

naroom (1560139) | about a year and a half ago | (#43197059)

This is why it's so important in biology to know people, or to have a PI who does. Friends tell friends their negative results, and that's how word gets around.

Re:Read the literature... or not (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43196653)

A big part of the problem is that there are few negative results in scientific literature. Ever found a paper with a clear negative outcome? I didn't. This "positive bias" in scientific publications is probably causing a major blow to the efficiency of scientific research.

There's a big difference between proving a negative result and failing to find a positive result. At least in biological science, most negative results amount to failure to find a positive result within a 1-in-20 confidence. Even if those studies do support the negative result, common statistical designs allow an error rate of 1-in-5 for 'negative' outcomes. The sample sizes required to really prove "No Effect" are much greater than those required to show "There may be an effect, but it's small enough not to be interesting." Likewise, your ability to prove "No Effect" depends a lot on how well you can make your measurements and how variable your population is. If you're looking at outcomes with significant variability (say the height of a human vs the failure load of a particular steel alloy), then your sample size increases even more. Not practical to do experiments that truely demonstrate negative results.

Re:Read the literature... or not (2)

DrProton (79239) | about a year and a half ago | (#43197767)

Michelson Morley was a negative outcome, wasn't it? This is one of the classic modern physics experiments. In general, tests of Lorentz Invariance are experiments with a "negative outcome." Many have tried to find a violation of Lorentz' dictum, all have failed.

Re:Read the literature... or not (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43198233)

Then it means that you are not reading the scientific literature. As an example, one of the most famous results of modern quantum physics is the discovery of the Bell inequalities, which proved that it is impossible to do something that people were trying to do for a long time: to "complete" quantum mechanics into a deterministic theory, as Einstein wanted.

Many more examples come to my mind (no-cloning of quantum information), impossibility of quantum computing with separable pure states, etc.) but they are a bit more technical.

Advisors cherry pick PhD projects? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43196411)

"A PhD student has the right to expect a project that generates a decent body of work within those four years."

For a Masters degree, this is acceptable. For a PhD, they had better be coming up with their own idea, a plan, funding, and then have their advisor and committee evaluate during the prospectus defense. Having their topic/project dropped in their lap so they can turn the crank is not what a PhD is all about.

Re:Advisors cherry pick PhD projects? (3, Informative)

bitingduck (810730) | about a year and a half ago | (#43197233)

"A PhD student has the right to expect a project that generates a decent body of work within those four years."

For a Masters degree, this is acceptable. For a PhD, they had better be coming up with their own idea, a plan, funding, and then have their advisor and committee evaluate during the prospectus defense. Having their topic/project dropped in their lap so they can turn the crank is not what a PhD is all about.

Funding?

There are areas of physics where the cycle time for proposals is 2 years (from announcement to release of funds) with a success rate of less than 10% for even senior people (NIH has an even lower funding rate, and an expectation that most things get proposed a couple times before being funded). Many, if not most, graduate students in science can easily get funding to cover their salary through fellowships/RA positions/TA positions, etc, but the chances of a grad student writing their own grant proposal in most subfields is pretty small. Sure, there are areas where you can do good science with dimestore materials (and a few places that specialize in that), but that's a pretty narrow slice of science in almost any field. Some of the most successful faculty I've known at one of the top science/engineering universities in the world are successful because they let their post-docs be PI on proposals (which is relatively uncommon). Then if the project is awarded the post-doc starts the work as a post-doc and manages to spin it into a faculty job.

Re:Advisors cherry pick PhD projects? (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43197803)

Usually a PhD program is about seeing if the student is capable of doing their own research, and communicating results in a clear and complete way. It is not a complete training for going into academia (maybe it varies with field, but my experience is with physics). As such, you rarely see any effort for the student to get their own funding. Although getting funding yourself looks good for your resume (it might not really help with a postdoc position, but after that it would), but sometimes that comes down to doing things like putting travel grants and other small funding awards on the CV to show you did something along those lines. Even at the postdoc level, it seems rare to see researchers doing their own, complete grant proposals. At that point you would need to be hired by a group anyways, because I don't think I've seen a school hire a generic postdoc and let them get funding for their own project. You can still try to get funding for a side project, and it would look good. But typically, it is not until you are a beginning researcher in a tenure track position that you begin the funding grind.

As far as what to work on, it often is somewhere in between being told exactly what to do and having to come up with your own complete project. There is a reason they have advisors, who are their to advise on feasibility, potential directions of research, potential problems and questions that need to be answered, and to keep things on a decent time track. It is not just supposed to be a sink-or-swim process, it is supposed to be educational so the students build up experience, much of which they lack at that point (e.g. it is easy to get over-optimistic when younger about how long some things can take to do). Additionally, the group and their grants have usually some bigger picture issue they are working toward, and there may be limits to what they can use their resources for, and they additionally have a good idea of what would be most helpful to add to the team's effort.

The process I've seen for such students is usually more of a gradient in self design. An incoming grad student may be given at first a simple, cookbook project that is supposed to take a month or little more, with the point of giving them a chance to learn the code base, or the lab layout, or the general work going on around the experiment. Then the advisor will let them know several of the big questions they have and some of the work that could contribute to that. The student usually has a fair bit of choice in which direction they want to go, and then they start off with some basic work. From there, and the results, and from talking to the advisor, the thesis project evolves, with the student having quite a bit of say, and the role of the advisor becoming more about pointing out gaps that need to be filled in, or keeping projects from getting over ambitious if time starts running short. A more concrete example would be what I've seen done on various plasma physics experiments, where you have a single large machine, and then a multitude of diagnostics run by different people and subgroups. A student, after some introduction to the experiment, would be given options like: no one currently is running magnetic diagnostics and we need a person there, here are some unresolved questions that could work toward, we also have several people working on spectroscopy at the moment, but there are some other questions and a lot of data there that could still support another person or two, the x-ray diagnostic just go a new person and we're not sure if much could be added by adding a second person to that subproject, so we don't think that would be a productive area for you, although it might still be an option for using the data in combination with another diagnostic...

Luck... (3, Insightful)

mutube (981006) | about a year and a half ago | (#43196445)

...and the ability to think on your feet.

It is not possible to plan 4 years ahead to ensure success. What you get instead is a PhD project plan that's wrapped in a set of general concepts (AKA escape routes) in case you hit a dead end. I'm currently doing a life science PhD and have changed tack at the half way point. A number of my colleagues have also, often quite drastically, whether for reasons of practical feasibility or time constraints.

If we know accurately what we were going to work on that far in advance, it has probably already been done.

Re:Luck... (3, Informative)

SomeKDEUser (1243392) | about a year and a half ago | (#43196857)

Yeah, the trick is that you should always try to get funding for projects you have already completed, thus claiming a 100% success rate. Of course, this only happens in very large lab and has a bootstrap problem.

On the other hand, the biological sciences are especially tough because experiments are hard, expensive and unreliable, and those doing them typically not so sophisticated with data analyses. Or else you are doing bioinformatics, which is either algorithmic research or also costly and generally inconclusive unless you do in vivo validation, in which case you are back to problem number one.

But seriously, if you work with old-school biologists, do the world a favour, and teach them that a Gaussian error on a number of cells is dumb and wrong.

Re:Luck... (4, Interesting)

ColdWetDog (752185) | about a year and a half ago | (#43197273)

But seriously, if you work with old-school biologists, do the world a favour, and teach them that a Gaussian error on a number of cells is dumb and wrong.

I think that entry into either medicine or the biological sciences should require a passing grade on a graduate level statistics course. Only then do you stand a chance in hell to start moving away from a century of misconstrued numbers. In medicine, it's still painfully obvious that most researchers couldn't get past Stats 101. And that is even after they have the manuscript reviewed by a biostatistician (who is probably shivering in a basement closet hoping that the next group of researchers gives up looking for him and goes to a bar.)

Of course, I'd still be fixing cars for a living, but that might have been a better outcome for myself and society....

Re:Luck... (2)

SomeKDEUser (1243392) | about a year and a half ago | (#43197309)

90% of MDs don't understand conditional probabilities. This is probably about the same as the general public (see the Monty Hall problem), but in that case it has very real consequences.

But then I don't expect much from MDs anyway.

But for researchers, not understanding what a model is (never mind a statistical one), this is a sin.

Re:Luck... (2)

bitingduck (810730) | about a year and a half ago | (#43197281)

On the other hand, the biological sciences are especially tough because experiments are hard, expensive and unreliable, and those doing them typically not so sophisticated with data analyses.

Try low temperature physics...

When I was in grad school I used to ride bikes with a guy who was a biology PhD-- I can't remember if he was a post-doc or staff somewhere. One time we were out and he asked "How many experiments do you do a week?" I almost fell off my bike laughing. I ran my experiment 3 times in 6 years (all in the last 1.5 years), and each time it ran for no less than 4 weeks (I think the longest run was 12 or 13 weeks). But up to the first successful run (as in all the engineering worked and it was possible to get data): design, build, test, fix (hardware, software, and electronics).

Spoken like a true manager (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43196477)

Chris Lee may be a physicist when he dons that hat, but in TFA he speaks as a people/resource manager, not as a physicist. In the science of physics, the only thing that determines whether an idea has merit is the scientific method, and that's very well documented.

Resource management is much more about cost and "return on investment" than about physics, even in the hard sciences, He wasn't speaking as a physicist in any way that's relevant to the science of his field.

Re:Spoken like a true manager (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43197171)

Physics research still has limited resources and needs management like decisions. That is part of any physicists job, so I would hope any other physicist would be able to speak about that to some degree. Yes, the scientific method is used for evaluating results. But you also need to evaluate which hypothesis you are going to actually test and iterate, because there are typically far more ideas than there are time and resources to work on.

The Persian method (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43196487)

Ancient Persians would debate ideas twice - once sober and once drunk. It had to sound feasible in both states to be a good idea.

Re:The Persian method (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43197179)

Trust me, modern physicists do this as well. Though depending on the physicist in question it is either when sober and when even more sober, or more common when drunk and when less drunk.

Re:The Persian method (2)

Chemisor (97276) | about a year and a half ago | (#43197393)

"Man, we should totally invade Greece! That Alexander is a real sissy and needs a lesson."
"Hear, hear! Now let's drink so we can evaluate this proposal more thoroughly!"

"Good for PhD" is not "good science"t (2)

Antique Geekmeister (740220) | about a year and a half ago | (#43196525)

I'm afraid the title of your note is misleading. Good science, much more than good engineering, involves testing new or old theories, to find how they work in previously untested ways, or to make sure that the previous test was really valid and caught all the important factors. A good graduate school project, involves a constrained project that can be reasonably tested in a few years, that does involve something of interest to the adviser, and that with good luck can be turned into a career of related questions.

The key is to make the initial question relatively simple, so that the concept can be expanded into tests or other related fields as time and funding permits. This isn't asking the "right size" of question, it's asking a question with enough related, interesting implications but that still has relevance if only the simplest parts can be addressed. Let me take an example of something I'd love to find a good thesis for: the cost of using different sorting algorithms.

The maximum computational costs of complex sorting algorithms is well understood (and well described at Wikipedia). But the additional computational cost of maintaining registers is not factored in, especially for small or modest data sets, and the cost of comparison _itself_ between different formats, or between positive and negative numbers, is not factored in to those computational costs. Neither is the cost of a partial sort that has to be started over from scratch or the benefit of algorithms that can be used when it is partially sorted. There is _wonderful_ material for a thesis in that kind of question, and even material for almost immediate application to industry. The preliminary survey and testing work with computational models can be done within a year by someone competent, but testing it against different CPU or software environments would be even more valuable and could easily fill out the rest of a graduate program, even leading to a creer in optimization of computational algorithms.

Re:"Good for PhD" is not "good science"t (1)

femtobyte (710429) | about a year and a half ago | (#43196933)

Wow, good thing you're not (...just guessing here...) in a position to hand out PhD thesis tasks. That type of grindwork sounds like a fine thing to foist off on a high-school summer intern. Not that doing thesis research doesn't involve a lot of tedious grinding on sub-tasks; however, you seem to be confusing "immediately useful for industry" with "good thesis project."

You also (...just assuming here...) don't seem to have ever gotten deeper in the study/practice of programming than reading Wikipedia pages. For speed/resource-critical programming tasks, yes, there actually is a software engineer looking at every detail of those "additional computational costs" --- counting cycles in assembly code and checking missed cache hits in memory. And this is exactly where your proposed research belongs: the person figuring out the fastest assembly routine for sorting 3 to 11-character unicode strings on an ATmega8535 microprocessor is the engineer tasked with building such a device, not some poor sucker of a grad student grinding through every conceivable hardware/task configuration.

Re:"Good for PhD" is not "good science"t (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43198315)

I'm not in a position to hand out the PhD taks, true. I went to industry long ago for the better pay. I've certainly helped PhD students get the tools they needed and evaluated the practicality of their projects on existing hardware, especially when they were working for me while working on their theses. so I have some insight.

I was apparently unclear that the "speed of sorting algorithms" was meant as a throw away example. By the time you've factored a problem deeply enough for most modern thesis topics, it's gotten too detailed and too deep for a typical Slashdot thread, and perhaps I should have made that more clear.

failure is a result (1)

freshmeathead (2708225) | about a year and a half ago | (#43196533)

and is always an option

That's easy (1)

slick7 (1703596) | about a year and a half ago | (#43196557)

See how Nikola Tesla did it, but do the same without the likes of Edison, big money, banksters, corrupt politicians, in other words, you're doomed!

Good ideas are discovered after the fact! (4, Interesting)

SirAstral (1349985) | about a year and a half ago | (#43196691)

Good ideas are hard to determine, and sometimes you find out something was actually a really bad idea only after several years like trans fats, or saccharin.

The results of scientific discovery are diminished by classifying them as success/failure. The only 2 classifications should be "A Truth Discovered" or "Pseudo Science".

Any lab experiment which is conducted to seek the truth even if it does not yield a commercially viable result is still a truth discovered. A so-called failed experiment still is a success at discovering a method which does not work to achieve desired results, and discovering what does not work in some cases can be more important then finding out what does and is an actual truth discovered.

Any experiment performed to skew results in a particular direction, or where evidence is tossed that does not agree with your idea's is nothing but pure Pseudo Science. Unfortunately we have so much of this it has made people distrust scientists because they have proven that they are just as opportunistic as normal people and will do just about any dishonest thing for a buck! True Science be damned!

Re:Good ideas are discovered after the fact! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43197005)

Indeed, when one tries something it is usually because one has some reason to think it might work. If it doesn't work, then one should find out why... and THAT may be a very important discovery (most often it won't, though). Science is not about making things work, it's about finding out why some things work and other's don't, so that every new experiment or trial is potentially a source of new knowledge.

Re:Good ideas are discovered after the fact! (1)

m00sh (2538182) | about a year and a half ago | (#43197765)

Any lab experiment which is conducted to seek the truth even if it does not yield a commercially viable result is still a truth discovered. A so-called failed experiment still is a success at discovering a method which does not work to achieve desired results, and discovering what does not work in some cases can be more important then finding out what does and is an actual truth discovered.

The problem there are infinite number of truths to be discovered. There already have hundreds of dissertations and results that will never be read.

For example, in any subfield of mathematics, there are infinitely many theorems but probably infinitely many useful ones as well. However, only a small fraction is published that lends to solving a goal common goal to the community.

Basically they don't. At least they shouldn't (4, Interesting)

140Mandak262Jamuna (970587) | about a year and a half ago | (#43196787)

If you know `a priori whether an idea is "good" or "bad" it will bring prejudice that will taint the results. One of the famous example is a naive Indian astrophysicist on his first trip outside India met Eddington on eve of his big presentation, in 1929. That guy explained in great detail his idea and Eddington not only dismissed it, he was scheduled to present just before this paper from that young man. He trashed the idea so much that the young man abandoned that field altogether and chose to pursue a different field [*]. Most others dismissed that paper too. It eventually garnered that young man a Nobel Prize in physics, and is the foundation of what is known as Chandrashekar Limit that tells you if a star is big enough to go supernova. That paper was discovered about 15 years later, after WW II. So in theory they should not know if an idea is good or bad.

But that is theory. In practice, having some realistic goals based on available resources of money and time is common to all fields, not just science.

[*] Chandrashekar was not bitter about Eddington, he credits being forced to change fields in his late 20s, taught him how to learn and he deliberately abandoned his field of study about every ten years, he continued to be productive into his late 70s. If you find the spoof paper written in his style The Imperturbability of Elevator Operators, by S Candlestickmaker, by one of his grad students, it makes hilarious reading for the geeks. ]

Re:Basically they don't. At least they shouldn't (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43198285)

While you are correct that Eddington was (very) publicly opposed to the entire idea that the Chandrasekhar limit was valid (because he did not think that black holes were physical realities - he preferred to think of them a mathematical artifacts that the laws of nature would resist - and the Chandrasekhar limit provides a physical mechanism for their formation), you are incorrect that it caused Chandrasekhar to abandon the field - he stayed in astrophysics his entire life, and was one of the most brilliant astrophysicists of his generation. While he did publish on many different topics in astrophysics (he made a habit of studying a problem tirelessly, publishing a number of papers about it and related problems, and then writing a book summarizing the subfield) to say that this was because of Eddington is probably stretching the truth and doing Chandrasekhar a disservice.

Eddington's public disagreements with Chandrasekhar's work did, however, prompt Chandrasekhar to look for positions outside of the UK, which is partly the reason he ended up at the University of Chicago. It's also important to note that even though Eddington was very vocal with his criticisms, most other physicists of the day (Fowler, Bohr, Pauli) agreed with Chandrasekhar. It's also been suggested many times (even by Chandrasekhar himself) that Eddington's criticisms were at least partially racially motivated.

I'll also note that the Chandrasekhar limit doesn't tell you if a star is big enough to go supernova - it tells you the maximum mass that can be supported by electron degeneracy pressure, like what you would find in a white dwarf (which is not the product of a supernova). It is related to supernova by the idea that an accreting white dwarf could gain enough mass to pass the Chandrasekhar limit, which would cause a thermonuclear detonation of the entire white dwarf, causing a Supernova Type IA.

Four Years??! (3, Informative)

period3 (94751) | about a year and a half ago | (#43196925)

Four years? Not in Canada - and presumably not in the US either. The department average in my program was more like 6 (I took about 6.5), and I've known people who have taken as long as 10 to complete their PhD.

From some document I found on startpage: http://careerchem.com/CAREER-INFO-ACADEMIC/Frank-Elgar.pdf

"Median time-to-completion of the PhD has nearly doubled during the last three 2 decades (from 6.5 to 11 years). "

Hindsight (5, Insightful)

naroom (1560139) | about a year and a half ago | (#43197067)

The only way to know if an idea was good, is after you've already done it. Future prediction is always a crapshoot. People who claim to be good at it were typically just lucky, and are deluding themselves into thinking it was all skill.

Re:Hindsight (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43197651)

Future prediction is always a crapshoot. People who claim to be good at it were typically just lucky, and are deluding themselves into thinking it was all skill.

I'm pretty sure some of them demonstrated an above average luck, which probably means they were very actively finding good and bad ideas.

They get grant money, thats how. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43197261)

Todays so called "Scientists" are mostly after one thing, money. Whether it be grant money, donations from private or government funding, governmental tax breaks or whatever that's the sign you have a good idea.

And that's all science is anymore, good ideas. That is to say, ideas that sound good.

All you need to be a scientist and get money is to come up an idea that sounds good. You don't need facts, science or proof, if you sound like you know what youre talking about them the money and attention will come. All scientists are for the most part now are salesmen pitching an idea. If you look hard enough and are a good speaker you can convince anyone of anything really.

Youre an especially good scientist if you can scare people as well. Like tell them how their faucets are causing heart disease, that cheese leads to cancer, and sleeping at night causes strokes in 1:100,000,000,000 test subjects.

I love science and Im all about it, but science for the most part now is a damn sad joke played on the weak minded and stupid.

Re:They get grant money, thats how. (2)

turkeyfish (950384) | about a year and a half ago | (#43197699)

If you think that "scientists" are mostly after money, then you don't know anything about how science works or where funding for science is actually spent.

Summary: (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43197457)

Good idea - one that people mock and refuse to accept or try.

"Good idea" - one that scientists get federal, uni, or private funding for but produce no meaningful output for 20 years, if ever.

wrong premise (1)

stenvar (2789879) | about a year and a half ago | (#43197555)

"Scientists" isn't some coherent group that "knows" something. Some take guesses, some succeed, some fail. Many get it wrong too, and quite frequently.

Test It (2)

Sir Realist (1391555) | about a year and a half ago | (#43197569)

Scientists tell if an idea is a good one by trying to prove it wrong, over-and-over-again and in as logical a thought-out way as possible, til they give up. This is known as "science", and the fact that they do it this way is why we call them "scientists".

Re:Test It (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43197875)

"Here's 20 ideas, and the budget to test 5 of them at the cursory level, or 2 of them thoroughly."

Testing being the final arbitrator and all is great, but in the real world we can't test and try everything at the moment. You still have to pick amongst ideas before getting to the testing point.

the economics of science (1)

khallow (566160) | about a year and a half ago | (#43197579)

Once again we see that one can determine with decent success value of a scientific effort in the near future, not just centuries down the road. This is quite relevant to the funding of science. If the scientists themselves are trying to figure out what activities will be more fruitful, then that's a strong indication that society ought to be doing this as well.

PhD = right-size research projects (1)

peter303 (12292) | about a year and a half ago | (#43197995)

A PhD is a several year apprenticeship in some area where you learn to do right-size research projects. The largest error of many new graduate students is to choose a project that has already been done, one that is too trivial to get publications out of, or one that is too large to finish in 3 years of work. There are fields outside of my PhD where i think I know pretty much the basic knowledge,e.g. computer science. But I would not be able to choose a "right size" R&D project without help.

Working on new ideas vs. publishing (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43198003)

If you do a PhD with the objective of landing a job in academia, you should also worry about your PhD advisor and his publication record. He/she can have a zilion briliant ideas, you will be fucked if you don't publish. Moreover, in finding a good advisor there are factual criteria, whereas determining which ideas would require prescience (and I don`t believe in it).

Dimwit (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43198007)

A PhD student has the right to expect a project that generates a decent body of work within those four years.

Er, how many?

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