Nobel laureate says scientific breakthrough ‘would not be possible’ today

Saul Perlmutter tells THE World Academic Summit that there is a ‘fundamental misunderstanding’ of the purpose of research

September 29, 2016
Saul Perlmutter in discussion at World Academic Summit

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Nobel laureate Saul Perlmutter said that he would not have been able to make his prizewinning discovery in today’s research funding environment.

The physics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said that the current funding climate means researchers are “very good at not wasting any money and also not good at making any discoveries”. He won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2011 after leading one of two teams that simultaneously discovered the accelerating expansion of the universe.

Speaking at the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit at Berkeley on 28 September, Professor Perlmutter said: “In the modern-day context there’s a tendency to ask: ‘What is it that you are planning to research? When will you finish it? And what day will your discovery be made?’”

He said that it took 10 years for him to make the discovery that led to the Nobel prize, during which time he was working at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which is supported by the US government's department of energy.

“I don’t think this particular project I’m describing would have happened in today’s funding environment,” he said.

“I think that would be very difficult in a world where you are managing every last cent and making sure you don’t waste any money.”

He said that the project was routinely administered by the laboratory’s review committee who argued that it “doesn’t fit the mission of the agency”, but funding was protected by a local division director of the laboratory.

“Finally, when we started seeing the surprising results at the end, the committee said: ‘This is exactly what we should be funding’,” he said.

“That’s not the kind of thing that’s easy to see from 10,000ft away. That is one of the best arguments for giving more autonomy to local funding, rather than trying to do everything from panels at a distance.”

He added that there is a “fundamental misunderstanding” by funders of academics’ goals when conducting “deep research”.

“People forget that what you’re looking for is gigantic surprises and transformations that allow us to do things that we never thought were possible,” he said.

“The only thing we know of that seems to work is to create an environment where people are thoughtful, they’re hopeful and they’re trying many ideas.”

He said that this approach can even be seen among venture capitalists, who only expect a “small fraction” of their investments to be successful.

“You’re looking for those rare, special investments and you have to spread the resources in order to get them,” he said.

He added that almost none of the world’s problems would “worry me if I felt that we knew how to work together and think through problems together in a rational way", noting that one of the best ways to achieve this goal is through teaching.

Professor Perlmutter also described the experience of leading one of two “rival” international teams working on the Supernova Cosmology Project, both of which ended up sharing the Nobel prize.

“It was a fiercely fought race,” he said. “We wouldn’t tell each other anything that was going on. We would be flying to the same telescopes they had just finished with.”

He said that the fact both teams found the same results meant that “the community was willing to accept the surprising science much sooner than would have happened otherwise".


Print headline: Nobel laureate: scientific breakthrough ‘not possible’ in today’s climate

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