Friday, August 26, 2011

Research freedom

One of the things which is most important to me has always been the ability to decide the direction my research would take.  Working in an industrial research lab is then not a good match.  In industry the goal is financial reward and, in fact, financial reward in a very short time frame.  The free exchange of data and ideas is also limited by the desire to gain advantage over potential competitors.

Work at government ("national") labs is somewhat better but research objectives imposed "from above" are often irrational or based on poor values.  Congress seems to want to force NASA to build the SLS based on a "bigger is better" mythology (and to send contracts to congressmen's home districts). 20 ton science modules launched by Proton rockets were chosen for MIR even though the engineers wanted 7 ton modules (launched on the R-7) which could have been changed out frequently.

This leaves university laboratories as the best choice if you want to make your own decisions as to research goals and direction.  Even then you will find that many university departments want all staff to work in some one (of a few) directions that the department concentrates on.  To have anything approaching research freedom you must even choose your university employer carefully.  This reality placed many constraints on me.  The notion that "in america you are free" was simply nonsense.  These conditions drive some people out of science.

Many people have argued for the need for freedom in creative pursuits in general and science in particular.  What kinds of freedom are required and how much is needed is a matter of debate. "Various psychological studies do show that, in general, scientists .... are characterized by a need for autonomy..." DISCOVERING by Root-Bernstein, Harvard U. Press, 1989, pg 315

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