Tuesday, December 11, 2007

On the dominance of the Ivies..

Via Cosmic Variance:

Exhibit A:

“One thing we all must worry about — I certainly do — is the federal support for scientific research. And are we all going to be chasing increasingly scarce dollars?” says Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard’s new president.

Not that Faust seems worried about Harvard or other top-tier research schools. “They’re going to be—we hope, we trust, we assume—the survivors in this race,” she says. As for the many lesser universities likely to lose market share, she adds, they would be wise “to really emphasize social science or humanities and have science endeavors that are not as ambitious” as those of Harvard and its peers.

Exhibit B:
Mario Capecchi: 2007 Nobel Laureate, Ph.D Harvard (1967). Associate Prof. Biochemistry (Harvard) (1969-1971)
Moved to U. Utah (1973).

Through a series of bold experiments begun in the 1980s, Capecchi demonstrated that he could alter any gene in a mouse cell by replacing it with a modified version. At the time, scientists were skeptical that such altered DNA could be targeted to a particular gene. But Capecchi was not to be deterred. Indeed, his studies demonstrated that it is possible to replace an intact, functional gene with a modified version that can zero in on the corresponding DNA in the chromosome.
And finally:

Some 50 universities are located in the Boston area. Rather than collaboration, Capecchi felt that the thousands of researchers were working in isolation on projects that promised "immediate gratification." As he explained, "Everyone is so aware of what everyone else is doing. 'What's new?' was asked every day. That limits you to short-term returns, posing questions that you know can be answered in six months."

In contrast, the University of Utah in Salt Lake City offered "a relaxed atmosphere, where you could work on projects whose outcome may take 10 years. The relative isolation tends to make you more focused on the biological question you're working on.

"It was a good choice," said Capecchi of his decision to relocate to the U of U in 1973.


  1. The question is, did he have tenure when he moved to Utah?

  2. The key difference, and I think that the previous anonymous poster nailed it, is risk taking.

    Risk taking is essential if science is to move forward. I am convinced that the breakthrough tend to occur when people take risks. At the very least, risk-averse researchers grow boring over time.

    One reason why the USA is so competitive, even though they have a bad taste regarding presidents, is that Americans are risk takers (compared to the rest of the world).

    Once the system is such that "playing it safe" becomes the best strategy because if you ever do 6 months of research in vain, you are basically finished, then I say that we have gone too far.

    Are people in Boston risk-averse, as is claimed? I don't really buy it, but maybe they are.


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