Hoisted From the Comments: Funded Research

A while back Michael Nielsen posted a comment in one of my blog posts that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately:

Re your last two paragraphs: a few years ago I wrote down a list of the ten papers I most admired in quantum computing. So far as I know, not a single one of them was funded, except in the broadest possible sense (e.g., undirected fellowship money, that kind of thing). Yet the great majority of work on quantum computing is funded projects, often well funded. My conclusion was that if you’re doing something fundable, then it’s probably not very interesting. (This applies less so to experimental work.)

This, of course, is quite a depressing idea: that the best work is funded at best indirectly by the powers that be.  But it hadn’t occurred to me until much more recently that I, as someone who regularly applies for funding can do something about this problem:  “My good ideas (all two of them)?  Sorry Mr. Funding Agency, I’m not going to let you fund them!”  And there is a bonus that if you submit something to an agency and they won’t fund it: well you can live under the illusion that you are doing might make the list of really important research.
Actually I’ve very proud of one research proposal I wrote that got rejected.  The reviewers said “this work raises interesting questions” and then “but it’s just too crazy for us.”  I mean it sucks to get rejected, but if you’re getting rejected because you’re just too crazy, well then at least you’re eccentric!  (A similar story was my dream of becoming a ski bum after getting my Ph.D. in theoretical physics.  I mean anyone can be a liftie, but a liftie with a degree in physics?  Now that would set you apart!  Lifties with Ph.D.s in physics please leave a note in the comment section of this blog 🙂 )

13 Replies to “Hoisted From the Comments: Funded Research”

  1. Well … call me a “Pollyanna Pangloss” if you wish … but it seemed to me to that Michael’s post could be read as being encouraging, as follows:
    • New ideas and enterprises change everyone’s thinking, and thus
    • the threshold for acceptance of new ideas and enterprises is high.
    • Novelty, generality, rigor, and practicality are elements of that threshold, and
    • sustained, critical peer-review is an element of that threshold, and finally
    • demonstrating immense persistence is an element of that threshold.
    The point is that a proposal review process simply is not a large enough stage to demonstrate these qualities. Two recent works that document what it really takes are Neil Sheehan’s A Fiery Peace in a Cold War (especially the chapters on von Neumann’s foundational work in computation and simulation) and Craig Venter’s autobiographical A Life Decoded (which also has important passages dealing with computation and simulation).

  2. Two small notes of clarification:
    1. My list of papers was top ten for theory only. I started out trying to compile a top ten list for both theory and experiment, but found it almost impossible to compare a lot of papers across that division.
    2. This observation (that the work seemed to be mostly unfunded) wasn’t something I had in mind before I compiled my list. It only jumped out at me after I’d written my list.

  3. At least one Nobel prize winner says his breakthroughs were not (directly) funded:
    My own experience is that funding is a distraction. Almost nothing came out of the largest grant I got. Meanwhile, I got a lot done with a salary and enough to pay for basic needs (not even including graduate students).
    People like Peter Turney (you know him if you work in Natural Language Processing) actually almost never apply for funding, and they do extremely well science-wise. Meanwhile, we all know people who are very well funded and who get little done in actual science (even if they appear to be very active).
    Anyhow, I’m convinced time is the most important commodity. I do my best work when I’m left alone to work with no other worries. I cannot imagine that others are much different.

  4. @Funded research? You must be Canadian 🙂
    All of the grants I have were funded for specific research programs…so if I had an idea about quantum information theory, it wouldn’t be “funded.”

  5. What is “funded research”? Does that mean it is funded specifically? Once you have a grant isn’t all your research funded?

  6. I have worked as a liftie … and ski patroller etc, but that was before I finished my PhD. Right after my PhD I worked again as a waitress. And after that I went to working on vineyards, and then a short postdoc at Oxford … and I’ve done a very large range of other jobs as well.

  7. On another Quantum Pontiff thread, Mac MaGarry’s comments have helped me realize that two more attributes of Michael Nielsen’s “Top Ten” list of ideas might well have been:
    (1) Novel theoretical enterprises often unite two or more disciplines that generally are considered to be separate, and for that reason …
    (2) Novel theoretical enterprises often alter or repurpose starting assumptions; in particular, ideas that (within individual disciplines) generally are regarded as axiomatic are altered, hybridized, or discarded outright.
    If you think about it, it is infeasible for existing programmatic research to accommodate novelty in this form. Conversely, novelty in this form is well-suited to launching new research programs.
    The Wright brothers (successful) program to develop powered flight rested upon novel theoretical foundations (specifically, in fluid dynamics and control theory) that exemplify precisely this latter style of research … and the less-recognized hero of this story arguably was Smithsonian director Samuel P. Langley, who recognized the value of the Wright brothers’ then-novel research methods, and did all that he could to nurture their effort.
    A well-written and thoroughly documented account of the Wright brothers’ research program—which IMHO holds many important lessons for 21st century quantum systems engineering—is James Tobin’s First to Fly: the Unlikely Triumph of Wilbur and Orville Wright.

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