Friday, April 29, 2011

When science "managers" put the cart before the horse

This week I read a nice Opinion piece in Physics World, Making an Impact in Biology by Robert Endres. It is worth reading for an update on the contributions that physicists are starting to make to biology. However, one paragraph stood out to me. I found it a bit sad, but not totally surprising:
.... bigger is not always better. When I did research at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the US a few years ago, managers used to say that supercomputers should be used in the upcoming field of biology-inspired research, as this would, in retrospect, justify the lab’s investment in a huge computing infrastructure. But they also worried that someone would get “lucky” and find a smaller, more tractable, model or a more efficient algorithm to solve the same problem on a laptop – making the lab’s investment into such projects superfluous. 
Moving to Princeton University shortly afterwards, I realized that these worries were well founded.Top researchers, by asking the right questions and using clever models, could produce high-impact research results without ever needing supercomputers. 
Endres stresses (as I would) that supercomputers have a role in research but should be just  viewed as a possible tool towards for scientific understanding, hopefully the weapon of last resort... They are just a means to an end. Furthermore, funding and politics must never determine scientific strategy.
The cartoon is courtesy of Bob Laughlin.

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