Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Black swans and scientific research

At universities and funding agencies...tenure and grant committees take decisions based on narrow criteria (focusing on publication lists, citations and impact factors) or on specific plans for near-term results, all of which inherently favour those working in established fields with well-accepted paradigms.

Mark Buchanan considers the prospects for encouraging greater scientific innovation in the April issue of Physics World. He suggests that scientific discoveries satisfy a power law distribution, that "the largest events are hugely disproportionate in their consequences. In the metaphor of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s 2007 best seller The Black Swan, it is not the normal events, the mundane and expected 'white swans' that matter the most, but the outliers, the completely unexpected 'black swans'."

Physicist Eric Weinstein proposes that scientific innovation could be encouraged by the creation of a financial options market in scientific ideas: "Weinstein’s point is that markets, in theory at least, work efficiently and — putting the current financial meltdown to one side — lead to the accurate valuation of products. They exploit the 'wisdom of crowds', as a popular book of the same title recently put it."

Yes, putting the current financial meltdown to one side. Apart from that.


Anonymous said...

The markets rewarded Trevithick and Telsa well for their efforts.

Perhaps a quote from Spengler regarding invention:

"In reality the passion of the inventor has nothing whatever to do with its consequences. It is his personal life-motive, his personal joy and sorrow. He wants to enjoy his triumph over difficult problems and the wealth and fame that it brings him, for their own sake. Whether his discovery is useful or menacing, creative or destructive, he cares not a jot. Nor indeed is anyone in a position to know this in advance. The effect of a 'technical achievement of mankind' is never foreseen - and, incidentally, 'mankind' has never discovered anything whatever. All great discoveries and inventions spring from the delight of strong men in victory. They are expressions of personality and not of the utilitarian thinking of the masses, who are merely spectators of the event, but must take its consequences whatever they may be."

Sean said...

Anom, Why should markets reward innovation? What markets in theory do award is efficiency.

Markets are just a reflection of what we do, if we want a market to work then we can make it work. When you stand of the bathroom scales and it says 15 stone when you wanted 12 stone, dont blame the scales.

what we want from markets is the most accurate information we can get, and i we except that there will always be imperfections then we will have more efficient markets.

Afterall for all the clamor, it was markets that spotted sub prime, not journalists, politicos, scientists ect.
And it tried to correct it, thats what the recession is a giant price correction.

Sean said...

Gordon, would not a market approach be preferable to about a million peer reviewed papers published a year, which the majority are basically sales pitches?

I for one as a laymen would understand the values placed on scientists and research traded between themselves, than I would reading a peer reviewed paper trying to work out which bits are the important ones.

At the end of the day, those million plus papers devalue the core that is the real important scientific work.

Gordon McCabe said...

I need to ponder this. From Mark Buchanan's article, the suggestion seems to be that a maverick researcher, whose papers are currently rejected by peer-reviewed publications, could issue a financial options contract, whose underlying asset is the expectation of future citations in peer-reviewed publications.

Presumably the idea is that the mavericks with good ideas eventually make the transition from peer-review rejection to peer-review publication. Only a small fraction of mavericks have ideas capable of making this transition, but people would be incentivized to think like mavericks if they could make money by issuing financial options on their prospects of future success.

The first problem I can see with this idea is that the underlying asset (the number of citations in peer-reviewed publications) doesn't itself have any financial value.

There must, I presume, already be a market in patents, which works because patents have potential future financial value.