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We’re Stuck at the Other End of Science, Too

Sabine Hossenfelder laments that what should be the “cutting edge” of science isn’t cutting it these days:

Very plausibly, the main reason why we haven’t made progress is that we’re not doing the right thing. We’re looking in the wrong places. We are letting ourselves be guided by the wrong principles. It’s about time that we rethink this because, clearly, it’s not working. One of the things that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about is what would be good principles to look at. Interestingly, in high-energy particle physics and also in cosmology, people pay a lot of attention to aesthetic criteria that they use to select theories they think are promising. And we know that paying attention to beauty is not very scientific. It’s certainly a human desire, but it’s questionable whether it will bring us anywhere.

To be honest, her article struck a chord with me at the “trailing edge” of science, geotechnical engineering.  I’ve gotten the feeling that we’re stuck in neutral in many ways: we’re doing a great many technological tweaks, but we’re not really moving the ball down the field the way we should.  Some of this is due to our regulatory environment, some due to the way our research is funded (which isn’t as different from Hossenfelder’s as we’d care to admit) but ultimately, as is the case in her field, it’s the way the community looks at the problem.  I lamented some of this last year in this post regarding my own specialty, pile dynamics:

Numerical methods and computer power have both vastly improved since Smith’s day. So is it possible to see another paradigm shift in the way we perform forward and inverse pile dynamics? The answer is “yes,” but there are two main obstacles to seeing that dream become a reality.

The first is the nature of our research system. As noted above, Smith’s achievement was done in a large organisation with considerable resources and the means to make them a reality. It was also a long-term effort. Today the piecemeal nature of our research grant system and the organisational disconnect among between universities, contractors and owners incentivises tweaking existing technology and techniques rather than taking bolder, riskier steps with the possible consequence of a dead-end result and a disappointed grant source.

The second is the nature of our standard, code and legal system. Getting the wave equation accepted in the transportation building community, for example, was an extended process that took longer than developing the program in the first place. Geotechnical engineering is a traditionally conservative branch of the profession. Its conservatism is buttressed by our code and standard system (which is also slow-moving) and the punishment meted out by our legal system when things go wrong, even when the mistake was well-intentioned. Getting a replacement will doubtless be a similar extended process.

My guess is that this problem extends to other fields of science and engineering as well.  If we want to make progress, we need to address these issues directly.


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