November 02, 2004

Social Networks

In a recent article in Wired Bruce Sterling comments on the role that social networks might play in the evaluation of impact and the identification of funding partners. A couple of points from that article:

He notes that "Allocating money for scientific research has always been highly problematic. Science just doesn't sit still for the usual forms of cost-benefit analysis..." and then goes on to postulate that social network maps of citations and peer review can provide a proxy for the all elusive impact. He then leaves us with an unfinished discussion of a scenario in which the scientist in the middle of a strong network is funded while his (gender assignment is mine, read into it what you will) less connected colleague is left unfunded.

My initial reaction is "great - now we can really reinforce the middle of the road". A number of pernicious assumptions underlie this analysis:

First - there is the assumption that past performance is a good indicator of future performance. This is self-fullfilling.

Second, and perhaps related - there is an implicit assumption that new ideas will come from well established sources (individuals?...)

Third - there is an implicit assumption that citations and peer review are good proxies...

I was attracted to the article for another reason - I am trying to fund new ideas. Can I use social networks to find new sources of funding. What is the map I need to connect my ideas with funding sources?...

Slight returns - Oct 04

Gravity Switches

A psycotherapist I know suggested an interesting interpreation of the gravity switches. He noted that is the deep psychology of teams and systems, the orientation of those switches might reflect some of the less pretty dynamics of the relationships between scientists and engineers. That is the fact that those switches were installed backwards can be seen as a retribution for real and percieved slights that accumulate over time. It is very important to recognize that this is not a conscious act, but an act that in some emotional / psycological sense "comes to be".

Science and Politics

Hansen did indeed make his speech and the NYT refered to it in an editorial recently. One of the things that I admire about Jim is that he really does give deep thought to the impact of the things that he and his group learn and to the responsibility that he has as an expert. I argue with myself about whether his actions are naive or brilliant, but I have no doubt that he is honest in his science and earnest in his intentions.

The current (and let us hope, lame duck) administration has been rightly and widely berated for distancing itself from well grounded scientific advice. What scares me more than that stance is the anti-intellectualism that it reflects. Again the role of unthinking Christian faith has been well documented. The unthinking part makes it hard to even engage in discussion, but thickheadedness does not change the fact that, despite human intervention, physical and biological systems continue to function in some Simon-esque natural way.

All of this returns me to my theme that we need to continue to agressively develop institutions that bridge the gap between the ivory tower and the hollowed halls. We need to train scientists who can both describe their work and its relevance in terms that can be widely understood and can understand the Truth to Power is overly simple. Similarly we need to ensure that decision-makers across the spectrum have both access to relevant scientific understanding and capacity to relate that understanding to the myriad tradeoffs they juggle.


Turns out the Red Sox won 8 straight to sweep the World Series after falling in a 3-0 hole in the ALCS. Digging out of the hole was a never-before. 8 straight is a never before as well. The question now is what will happen in New England now that the Curse of the Bambino has been broken. Some predict that with nothing left to live for, many Red Sox fans will simply give up the ghost. Others have predicted social and economic collapse with the loss of the uniting force of "next year". Still others see the dawning of a new and brighter era with the victory presaging a new dawn in American politics. Next year will tell....