Jan 8, 2014

Die beste aller Welten


Das größte Hemmnis in der Forschung, die furchtbarste Plage für einen Wissenschaftler, der täglichen Alptraum: Bürokratie. Kein Zweifel. Immer abenteuerlichere Abläufe und Formulare für einfachste Bestellungen, kleinteiliger Stundennachweis in Forschungsprojekten, Excel-sheets mit Leistungskosten für jeden Handgriff, Bewertung von Wissenschaft nach Kennzahlen, Abrechnungen von Dienstreisen, bei der Neid und Missgunst Antrieb für grenzenlose Schikanen zu sein scheinen. Hier verraucht Energie, die in die Forschung gehen sollte, gleich zweifach. Einmal im bürokratischen Prozess und dann im lange nachklingenden Ärger darüber. Die Folge ist eine Einstellung zur Verwaltung, die mit dem Wort ‚skeptisch’ deutlich zu wohlwollend beschrieben ist.
Natürlich sind das zwei Welten, die unterschiedlicher kaum sein können. Wissenschaft befasst sich mit dem Ungewissen, dem Ungewöhnlichen, sie sucht nach dem Widerspruch und dem Abweichen vom vorher geplanten Pfad. Verwaltung arbeitet hingegen am liebsten an Standards, strukturiert das Berechenbare, definiert Prozesse und strebt Routine an - sie hasst die Überraschung. Gleichzeitig wird von der Forschung größtmögliche Sichtbarkeit und maximaler Impact gefordert, während die Verwaltung desto besser ist, je weniger man von ihr sieht. Rampenlicht auf der einen, Schattendasein auf der anderen Seite.
Offensichtlich ist Wissenschaft mit Verwaltung nicht vereinbar. Wissenschaft und Verwaltung stoßen sich geradezu ab. Der Widerspruch ist offenbar. Es kann gar keine Wissenschaftsverwaltung geben. Schon das Wort müsste, kaum zu Papier gebracht, spontan zerfallen.
Es ist bezeichnend, dass der damalige DFG-Präsident Hubert Markl zur ersten Verleihung des Leibniz-Preises 1986 von ‚märchenhafter Freiheit’ für die Ausgezeichneten sprach. Denn sie bekommen 2.5 Millionen Euro Preisgeld nicht für ein Haus, ein Auto oder ein Leben am Pool. Sondern für bis zu sieben Jahre ungeahnter Freiheit: Tag und Nacht forschen, Wochenenden im Labor, harte Diskussionen, experimentelle Rückschläge, Anfeindungen, Konkurrenz und seltene Durchbrüche. Forschen nach eigenen Vorstellungen und frei von bürokratischem Aufwand. Märchenhaft in der Tat.
Es ist ja die Enge der bürokratischen Vorschriften, die die Freiheit der Wissenschaft bedroht – nicht unbedingt die Verwaltung. Nur befassen sich Wissenschaft und Verwaltung zu oft und zu intensiv miteinander und machen sich das Leben schwer. Sie sollen das gar nicht. Verwalter sollen keine Wissenschaft strukturieren und Wissenschaftler sollen nicht verwalten. Sie sollen ganz unterschiedliche Probleme lösen. Bei wachsenden Forschungs-Infrastrukturen und dem Arbeiten mit öffentlichen Mitteln ist ein Administrieren der Wissenschafts-unterstützenden Prozesse dringend notwendig. Das Regelwerk, das unausweichlich anhängt, sobald man mit großen Summen öffentlichen Geldes, mit Personalverantwortung und drohenden Prüfungen durch Zuwendungsgeber und Rechnungshof  arbeitet, ist notwendige Bürokratie. Da Bürokratie aber inhärent zu Metastasenbildung neigt, braucht Forschung eine effiziente Verwaltung, die das Forschen unterstützt, indem sie jegliche bürokratische Böe von der Forschung fernhält. Sie tut das, indem sie Infrastrukturen administriert und die bürokratischen Erfordernisse des komplexen Wissenschaftsbetriebs ebenso bedient, wie sie im Sinne der Wissenschaft dann aber auch Anforderungen definiert, formale Auswüchse korrigiert, bürokratische Zellteilung reguliert und Bürokratie-ästhetische Absurditäten selbstbewusst ausbremst. Wenn sie es schafft, die legitimen bürokratischen Anforderungen zu befriedigen, dabei aber wissenschaftsfremde Tätigkeiten weitgehend von den Wissenschaftlern fern zu halten und selbst nahezu unsichtbar zu bleiben, dann ist sie ein wertvolles Instrument für den Wissenschaftsbetrieb. In diesem Idealfall können die Wissenschaftlerinnen und Wissenschaftler alle Energie auf das verwenden, was sie am besten können: forschen. Eine märchenhafte Situation wie es sie im wirklichen Leben nur ganz selten gibt. 

Nov 27, 2013

You want to eat your neighbour?

It sounds a bit cheesy - and it smells like it. As reported in Nature (vol 503, Nov 14, 2013), a bunch of science artists at the Dublin Science Gallery presents a cream-cheese that is prepared from milk and cultures from a persons skin. They don't expect you to eat that monster, though. The whole event is rather about life after nature - it is about manipulating biology, designing life-forms, hacking evolution. Not necessarily with the goal to entertain the fromage-conoisseur.
The Science Gallery is one of a few projects aiming at getting the excitement of science to the public, and doing so not by mashing up sci-fi talk with scientoid babble (the ubiquituous time-travel, worm-holes (not in cheese but in space-time, for once), and code-breaking quantum computing, topped off with mind-numbing what-if stories of the kind bigthink and their protagonist Michio Kaku like to sponsor). Instead they show off the excitement and the real emotions of a scientifically curious approach to the world. Shows like this aim at the high-end, widely awake cultural person. They are miles apart from the often patronizing endeavours of TV science-blunder that is decorated with the archetypical Mad Professor joking his way through a cartoonized science-world. Do you really wonder why kids are turning away from science? Most of the stuff is simply too childish for our children.(My 4 year old asked me, why the heck the blood in her biology book is depicted as litte guys with a red swim-ring around its belly. What the §$%& do I know?!)
But science is too important an element of our culture to be ridiculed by default. Many of those proudly admitting at a reception that they never understood physics, might be as far off from getting a clue what that Shostakovich guy whom they routinely mix up with Tchaikovsky is all about. Incompetence in conventional culture is too comfortably covered up by droning on about emotions with the intellectual depth of an underage deep-frozen Gorgonzola.
Bon appétit!
(oh, and check out the relation between verbal dexterity and Camembert)

Jul 15, 2013

Kings will fall

Us wannabe-managers get flooded by offers for management-courses all the time. There are wonderful things to be learned: how to manage your time (hey, do you actually have any time left, that you would like to manage? What kind of manager are you?).They teach you negotiation skills (if you don't have them, the guy on the other side of the table will always outsmart you - minutes before you even get a chance to have a glance at your cheat-sheet, because as they say 'either you are at the table or you are on the menu'). Oh, and yes, team-building skills (just accept, that nobody wants to be in your team anyway, let alone have you as the leader, if you are not male, extremly handsome, witty, generous, nonchalant and self-confident). There are hundreds such training-camps every year, every place. And they all promise to help you. The more expensive the better.
But they don't. The best they can do, is open your eyes for your weaknesses, tell you some tricks, give you a brush-up at excel-sheet managment of your work life and hand you a box with nifty rules for pretending to be in control.
One thing you have to master before you even start thinking about leading a team, heading an institute, commanding the world: control your temper. If you can't switch your adrenaline-level on and off at will, you are the wrong person.
And there is no better way learning that than playing chess. Playing chess after a round of boxing, that is. Imagine opening a game of chess with an equally smart mate, interrupt that after two minutes for a round of boxing, get back at the chess board, boxing ring, chess board... until one runs out of time or is set check-mate (in chess) or get's knocked out (in the ring). You will have to switch from cold calculations to fiery bouts and back to an all focused brain again and again.
This sport does exist and it is on the rise. It is called chessboxing and it increasingly draws excited crowds all over the world. Started as a form of art by the Berlin based dutch artist Iepe Rubingh it now is in a phase of professionalization through its World Chessboxing Organization. Iepes goal is to have it as part of the Olympic games 2016. All looks like this is absolutely doable. 
But very short term, the film-maker David Bitton hopes to get the first documentary out. He has filmed a shipload of unique material and has the most comprehensive insider view on the competing Chess-Boxing organizations, the development of which is a thriller by its own. Problem is: he needs funding, fast. So please check out his kickstarter campaign. And contribute madly!
Now.

Apr 15, 2013

The Value of Science


The number of publications and citations, possibly rescaled into more complex relations like the Hirsch-index or fashionable derivatives thereof, are widely accepted parameters to quantify ,scientific quality‘.  In times of scarce financial resources, transparency is imperative for allocating funds, and it is more than understandable that substantial investments in science are best legitimized by ,useful‘ research results.
 This goes along with the belief that scientific quality can somehow be objectively measured and the whole process of 'doing science' can ultimately be subjected to some sort of controlling.  While the drive for excellence and usefulness is agreed upon - their definition and measurability, however, is far from clear.
It seems rather straightforward to translate usefulness into technological applicability of the research results, favouring in general strictly application-orientated and and even product-driven applied research over basic research, which often is seen as costly dabbling of excentric scientists.This rather economic understanding of scientific value is bemoaned in a desperate note by Abraham Flexner: „We hear it said with tiresome iteration that ours is a materialistic age, the main concern of which should be the wider distribution of material goods and worldly opportunities“ at a speach as founding director of Princeton‘s Institute for Advanced Study in1939.
If usefulness equals monetary return it is worth while looking at the most fundamental and academic research endeavours of the highest quality.  Scanning the Nobel prizes in physics of the last century turns up a majority of science that is predominantly curiosity-driven and that was of pure academic interest at the time it was undertaken. Today, however, the market-value of x-rays, radioactivity, electron-rays,  x-ray diffraction, nuclear fission, and of course semiconductors can not be overstimated. Every one of these discoveries opened markets worth billions and billions of dollars, dwarfing the return on investment of the ubiquitous 'mp3-code' that is quoted at nauseam as one of the more successful patents from applied research in Germany.
Product driven application oriented research ultimately encourages iterative optimizations well within the  borders of the known. Fundamental research, on the other hand, has the potential for real disruption and a leap in technology - the basis for innovation. Only together technological advance is achievable.
As obvious as this might be, research funding is focusing on the planable, forseeable - and this can be most easily spotted at applied research. The common research project demands for milestones and interim reports and justifications are expected if goals are not reached. This drives grant-applications into the mainstream. If the results are predictable, if the milestones are reachable, if the project is rather risk-free an application looks promising to take the hurdles of scientific refereeing and pass critical examination of the funding agency‘s grant officers. But this is the opposite of innovation.
Scientific research is never more than an option on a return. The value of this option certainly depends on a number of variables that are seen as indicators for good science: a prolific research team (as measured by the number of publications) and high scientific standards (which might be inferred from the acceptance in the scientific community, reflected by the number of citations, the frequency of invited talks - generally, the impact of the group).  But as has been suggested in analogy to pricing models for options on goods in the world of investment banking, the optional return increases also with the volatility of the research results (an indicator of the innovative potential) and the time allowed to pass (see "Der W€rt der Wissenschaft", Gegenworte 27, 54-56, 2012) - parameters that hint at the dynamic and sometimes volatile nature of research but are not commonly taken into account.