Risk, innovation, tenure… and secret science

With SOPA protests gumming up the internet yesterday (and leaving me prone to distraction by websites like this one), my evening was free to try something new, so I headed to the Bell House to learn a little bit about the universe. Happily, my first trip to the Secret Science Club was a delight, even though I couldn’t get in the door. By the time I arrived, NYU cosmology professor David Hogg had already gathered an overcapacity crowd in the event space, so I figured I’d warm up a bit and have a drink before heading back home.

The premise of the event is simply great, and I love how much of a crowd it gathered.  People kept pouring in, packing the front lounge, all of them disappointed to have missed their chance to hear a free talk about astronomy. (The recent coverage in the Times couldn’t have hurt.) Actually, I love that it was so full that I couldn’t get in. When 8 p.m. hit and the talk began, I was even happier to find that the lounge had decided to broadcast the session into the bar area–so I could stay cozy on a sofa with my drink and still get my fix of black holes and red shift.

Despite all the mysterious talk of dark matter and neutrinos, the thing that stuck with me most (undoubtedly because I had already been thinking about it) is that our current academic system doesn’t really know how to reward good work on theories that don’t end up holding water. Hogg emphasized the importance of taking risks in order to do truly innovative work, and noted that many times such risk is at odds with the academic credentialing system. Incorrect theories don’t result in published papers, lines on CVs, or items for a tenure dossier. But without risks and innovative thinking, research will only progress by small increments, because incremental advancement is the safe way to garner professional rewards of publishing, tenure, and promotion.

I like to think that at their best, funders can help encourage innovation by cushioning the financial risk that accompanies professional risk, and also by providing a certain validation of the work being done. Still, what matters most in the academic system are academic credentials. As means of scholarly communication are changing and tenure dossiers are beginning to look different (for instance, the recent MLA convention featured a workshop on evaluating digital materials for tenure), I hope that we might be in a moment when the credentialing system is undergoing some changes and is therefore a bit more pliable than usual.

But it’s hard to know how exactly to fix the problem. What would a tenure and promotion system that fostered risk and innovation look like? How can universities incentivize inquiry and exploration that may not result in a provable theory? These are major questions relating to systems deeply embedded in university structure, so I don’t expect simple answers. Still, I find some hope in the fact that the question is being raised not only in academic circles by incredibly smart and thoughtful people, but also at a free science talk at an out-of-the-way Gowanus bar in a room filled with non-specialists who are thirsty to learn something new.