EDITOR'S NOTE: Please use this space! The Forum on Physics and Society is, first and foremost, a forum--a place to exchange ideas. We need your ideas. Do exchange them with others, by sending us an occasional letter on science-and-society matters that interest you.

Forum Election Candidates

As I told Forum chair Tony Nero at a recent meeting, y'all (Forum chair, nominating committee, et al) should be proud of choosing such good people for the Forum officers candidate slate. The candidates should ALL be elected!

Leonard X. Finegold
Drexel University
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Funding Competition Promotes Mediocrity

A recent letter (1) reiterates a sentiment many of us have: the drying up of a stream of fundamental physics discoveries despite growth of the physics community worldwide.

Among factors contributing to this "discovery-dilution phenomenon," two effects are the most important. The first is the overplaying of a business model of "competition" to a community whose prime aim is the search for truth, not competition for grants. Business mentality favors the invasion of academia by bureaucratic and corporate structures. Such structures tend to proliferate for their own sake, often at a detriment to the process of scientific innovation they are supposed to serve.

The second effect is a gross overrating of anonymous peer review (APR), especially in awarding research grants. The only valid purpose of peer review is as a safeguard against crude unprofessionalism. And it need not be anonymous to serve this end. However, APR usually claims a much greater territory and assumes various science- control roles which should not belong to it. Its anonymity gives the reviewers significant power with no responsibility in return. Of course, not all peer reviewers are evil or dishonest. Yet, despite the best individual intentions, the secretiveness of the process inevitably results in conformist pressures. Presently, the only realistic way to pursue innovative ideas in science is their careful concealment behind the mainstream facade of well-established ideas. In the words of biophysicist Richard Gordon, "we are forced to lie to obtain funds to seek truth" (2).

A recent article (3) contains several statements which try to justify poor selectivity practice on the basis of a bogus philosophy of "winners and losers." Geochemist Stan Hart is quoted as saying: "...continuing support for those not at the cutting-edge...isn't doing anybody a favor. I hate to sound elitist,...but once you've given someone a chance to succeed, we need...to weed out those who are not top-notch and tell them to...find another profession."

The problem with this is not that it is elitist, but that it is wishful thinking. There is no mysterious gauge which can determine what is "top notch" and what is not. A so- called "expert peer review" has historically a poor record of predicting the outcome. It is often said that Christopher Columbus would never have left harbor if his voyage plans had been subjected to APR. What the present funding philosophy of NSF and the Canadian NSERC fails to appreciate is that the pressure of "selectivity" coerces researchers into "safe science." The net result of the overly competitive granting system is exactly what its proponents claim to be against: mediocrity. Due to publish-or-perish hysteria (largely driven by the present APR system), much of what is actually produced in the science marketplace is well dressed trivia. Contrary to what appears "obvious," we need much less, not more, peer reviewing to stimulate paths of discovery.

The false faith that draconian competition for grants is the best way to achieve excellence was refuted by many leading world scientists. Nobel Prize physicist Heinrich Rohrer states (4): "To my knowledge significant progress has never been born of...competition. In science, being 'better' than others is of...little practical value. ...Examples of how absurd the idea of scientific competition is...are abundant."

The trouble is that competition is so vastly overplayed in the North American psyche that nothing short of a new paradigm shift can reorient the society (including science) from competition to cooperation. Let's leave competition where it properly belongs, to the Tonya Hardings and O. J. Simpsons. Most problems of the physics community should be addressed and solved at home. We should stop blaming greedy governments for underfunding and start cleaning our own house first. The first thing to do is to abolish the secretive APR system. We don't need government councils to assist us with this. We can start to do it now. For our proposals see (5). Failure to act is a recipe for further marginalization of our profession.

Alexander A. Berezin
Exec. Sec. of Canadian Assoc. for Responsible Research Funding
Department of Engineering Physics
McMaster University
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, L8S 4L7

1. Holger Friedrich, American Journal of Physics September 1994, p. 776.
2. Richard Gordon, Accountability in Research Vol. 2, 297, 1992.
3. Jeffrey Mervis, Science 10 December 1993, p.1636.
4. Heinrich Rohrer, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews Vol. 19, 193, 1994.
5. A.Berezin, R.Gordon, G.Hunter, New Scientist 11 February 1995, p. 46.