Discover more from FreakTakes
How fast can a bureaucracy grow in a government scientific department?
Also: why the ‘burden of knowledge’ might be more of a social problem than a knowledge problem
I just finished Warren Weaver’s ludicrously underrated autobiography, Scene of Change: A Lifetime in American Science (It’s so out of print that the only copies I could even find were $80+ and they were few and far between). I’m working on a long-form post about some major takeaways from the book, but, in the meantime, I couldn’t resist releasing a Short covering a few other interesting pieces of the book.
Weaver’s wide-ranging accounts of all parts of America’s scientific ecosystem, from World War I up until around 1970, provide fruitful lessons for pretty much all sub-areas of progress studies. This short will focus on three separate subjects which Weaver briefly addressed that are remarkably pertinent today: the “burden of knowledge,” scientific bureaucracy in government departments, and why theorists should never stray far from applications.
Many of you may know Weaver — if you know him at all — as the co-author of The Mathematical Theory of Communication with Claude Shannon, the more public-facing book written to popularize Shannon’s then-not-so-famous paper in the Bell System Technical Journal which marked the birth of information theory.
But, as it turns out, helping popularize Shannon’s theory was Weaver’s third most significant contribution to science AT BEST. He was also instrumental in helping bring into existence early research pivotal to the field of molecular biology and in setting up the research institutes responsible for the findings that led to miracle rice — massively increasing the efficiency of rice growth in the then-developing world.
Those two efforts will be the subject of the following post. So make sure you subscribe if you don’t want to miss that post. Having been a physics researcher, an early member of the CalTech faculty when it was just getting started, in charge of the Rockefeller Foundation’s natural sciences grants, and a right-hand man to Alfred Sloan at the Sloan Foundation, Weaver witnessed and was around for a bit of everything in the mid-20th century boom in science and scientific philanthropy. And, as a kicker, he was freakishly smart/thoughtful.
The three sections of this post cover stories related to:
How long it took for one of America’s most flexible and fast-moving scientific departments, the National Research Council, to grow so large and bureaucratic that it couldn’t (effectively) do anything new.
The account of yet another top scientist who lived and worked through the golden era of physics blaming conference sizes, not the growing size of the literature, for it being hard to keep abreast of new findings in his field and related fields.
And, as in the Langmuir piece, another theoretical researcher (in this case a mathematician) becoming most useful when working in close proximity with applied researchers.
Applied work: a theorist’s annoying best friend who makes good points
The following is an example Weaver recounts of some World War I work in which yet another theorist heavily benefited from proximity to applications. Unlike in the Langmuir piece, where we saw new theory result from proximity to the lab environment, in this case, the outcome was that was able to make his not-so-useful work useful.
The story took place at a then very young CalTech. Weaver writes:
There was considerable scientific activity at Throop [later CalTech], which, in the early months of our national participation in World War I was oriented toward defense, particularly in the aeronautical area. The submarine menace being an obvious and indeed terrifying one, there also were various studies related to high-frequency sound production, transmission, and detection. I read up on the piezoelectric effect, whereby a block of crystal can be electrically driven to oscillate at high frequencies. Harry Bateman, the English mathematician previously mentioned, was investigating, with his powerful but extremely theoretical methods, the possible advantage of electrically driving a hollow spherical shell of crystal, so that it could be used as a source of underwater sound waves. One day I asked him how serious would be the effect of the discontinuity where the two halves of the hollow spherical shell were cemented to form a complete hollow sphere, It turned out that Harry had not thought of that. He just calmly assumed that some practical chap could put a concentric spherical hole inside a solid crystal sphere without tampering in any way with its homogeneity! Bateman had been the First Wrangler at Trinity College, Cambridge, was a profound scholar with a vast store of knowledge about partial differential equations, and a sweet and gentle person. But he was not precisely practical.
While, technically, Weaver was studying a math-heavy form of electromagnetic field theory as a professor, he was a formally accredited civil engineer, having majored in civil engineering at Wisconsin-Madison (and simply did a lot of extra physics and math on the side). He even took time off of his research one summer to do some work on geophysical prospecting with an engineering firm. He was exactly the kind of application-minded researcher that could help a true theoretician achieve an elevated level of translational impact.
Just as in the GE Lab for the Langmuir piece, this theoretician was:
Allowed to use his own methods and lead his own research BUT had a specific application area of use chosen for him.
And this theorist made use of his proximity to applied men to come up with newer or more practicable lines of their research.
Many theoreticians just shouldn’t be allowed to work off to the side as high a percentage of the time as they currently do, existing in professional silos for the vast majority of their research time.
When I tell these stories, such as in the Langmuir piece, I take care to make sure that they are all more or less representative of this boom-era of applied and fundamental research — and not some edge case. The misapplication of a generation of theorists is something I feel very strongly about, so I hope to continue to share these anecdotes with you in the shorts both because they are interesting and because they will add data points to your mental dataset of how exactly the life of a theorist is benefited from exposure to applied work — even if it’s not the allocation of time they would choose for themselves.
And this is not me over-fitting my own opinions onto history. This opinion on the relationship between applied and fundamental work was echoed by many at the time as well, including Weaver himself. At the end of World War II, a war in which Weaver was put in charge of an entire division of applied mathematicians, Weaver reflected:
The experience of the war had demonstrated the practical national, as well as the personal intellectual, value of work in this field, and had shown what history had in fact proved over the centuries — that mathematics, including its most “pure” and abstract portions, is healthiest and strongest during invigorating contact with a wide range of problems in the real world of experience.
The researchers working in Weaver’s applied math department were not all applied mathematicians regularly. The department’s ranks included many technical researchers with mathematics chops who did not normally do this. There were physicists, actual applied mathematicians, more traditional mathematicians like Oswald Veblen, and even folks like a then-Ph.D. student named Milton Friedman.
They all put in their time. There they learned, firsthand, what kind of fundamental work would have a path to usefulness and what kind was likely only interesting to people in their academic circles.
How fast a government scientific bureaucracy can grow (wildly fast)
Most people will not argue that government scientific organizations like the NSF were productive, efficient, and generally good at achieving their knowledge-creation goals with minimal bureaucracy in their early years. But, as researchers have spent entire careers studying, these organizations can rapidly become (relatively) ineffective both in their sluggish pace and their inability to properly adjust goals/processes that work against the org’s mission to create useful knowledge.
Many times, in a large central government, if you want something moderately new done, you need to erect an entirely new department to do it. Feynman mentioned an example of this in his oral history. As he was trying to explain why he had no desire to join the National Academy of Sciences.
No. I’d never heard of the National Academy of Sciences. I received this thing, and I didn’t know what it was. Somebody told me Epstein would know, because he was the only guy around at the time. Bacher was out or something. I said, “I don’t want to join it, Professor, because as far as I know, they don’t do a damned thing.” He said, “But they have this National Academy of Sciences thing that they publish. They have meetings.” I said, “Yeah, but I don’t read the National Academy whatever it is.” I don’t even remember what the name of the publication is now. It’s a publication, but the articles in physics are not impressive there. I never had to refer to it. Never knew it was there, and I never knew anything that they did. “Well, it’s an honorary society.” I had already made, when I was a kid in high school, a principle, see. Like a nut, like children do, you make ideal principles, and then later you make yourself miserable in life by having to change the principle. See, I had become a member of what was called the Arista, which was an honorary thing for the students, and the only thing we did in the Arista was to select other students who might become members of this thing. So it was a mutual patting on the back society, and I looked at what we were doing, and I thought, “That’s not right. All we do, we get into this thing, and we give the honor to the next guy, the great honor.
I’ll tell you more that I don’t like — the history of it. It was invented by, I believe, Lincoln, in the Civil War, to help scientifically, to give advice, to assist the Union in winning the Civil War. It had therefore a real purpose, hm? Ok. By the time the next war came along — I don’t know which; say the First World War — it’s ineffective, so they can’t use it. Instead of that, they appoint another thing whose name I don’t — oh, the National Research Council, hm? — in order to give advice to help win the First World War. We have these two things now — hm? Ok? And they don’t buy, it doesn’t buy. It has its building in Washington. It’s paid for by the taxpayers. It doesn’t buy, because it can’t do its job, and they knew all this. Second World War comes around — neither of the two organizations works now. They need another thing — OSRD, or something like that, hm? And they put that on top of the thing. I don’t remember all how it goes, but this stuff just doesn’t make sense. If it doesn’t work, forget it. And if it works, use it. But not just pile one on top of the other, because it’ll just get like barnacles. So they have now four or five organizations. They all exist, from back in history.
Weaver confirmed this state of affairs in a slightly more polite manner saying that, by World War II:
History then repeated itself. By 1940 the National Research Council had become so deeply engaged in the programs it had developed over the preceding twenty-year period that clearly a new organization, flexible and uncommitted, must again be set up.
Even at that time, with a smaller and, I believe, relatively speedier federal government, the length between one World War and the next was enough for one war research department to become stale and another needed to be created that could materially contribute to the war effort.
But, that begs the question: does this mean the decline in the effectiveness of the department was actually that rapid? You might be thinking, “It is a federal department, after all. It might’ve been shockingly slow to begin with and it getting even 15% more bureaucratic could break it.”
But the answer to that is actually a little scary. The National Research Council, the World War I department mentioned above, was probably way more startup-y than you’d think.
Weaver painted a very clear picture of how surprisingly quickly and effectively projects in the National Research Council could be done. He writes:
Toward the end of the spring semester at Throop in 1918 I was inducted into service at the request of Charles E. Mendenhall, Chairman of the Physics Department at the University of Wisconsin. Mendenhall was then a major in an organization closely related to the National Research Council, set up in World War I (as was Vannevar Bush’s Office of Scientific Research and Development in World War II) to bring science to the service of the armed forces. I went in as a private, but after some months was made a second lieutenant.
I worked chiefly at the Bureau of Standards in Washington, in a group which — how ridiculous and ineffective this seems in retrospect — consisted of myself and an expert mechanic. There were few aircraft flight instruments available in those days, and I was primarily with the design and test of turn and bank indicators. It was very easy to design and construct a gyroscopic device that would tell the pilots when they were flying a straight line. But bank indicators, especially ones which would continue to operate with useful accuracy during the acrobatics of aerial dogfights, presented difficulties we never overcame. I did get to do some very exciting acrobatic flying at Langley Field, where returned fighter pilots would subject the instruments (and the testing scientist!) to the latest flying tricks. But this was not the sort of participation in the war I craved, and I was relieved when I was discharged.
Even in friendlier and comparatively less sclerotic-inducing conditions, a department as scrappy as this grew so inflexible that a new department needed to be created in twenty years to meet the needs of a new war. This should serve as a reminder of just how careful we need to be in the design of fledgling orgs like ARPA-H. A startup-y culture in the early years is great, but designing systems that allow an org the needed flexibility to adapt with the times and somehow stay useful (against the odds) is another thing entirely.
I don’t have any fleshed-out ideas I’m confident enough in (yet) to include in this piece — which is why I’ve put it in a short and not a longer-form piece. BUT I suspect that the answer will at least partially be a form of engineered decentralization and empowered individual decision-making that you see in something like ARPA-E and DARPA project selection and management. This kind of individual empowerment/agency is, in practice, MUCH more lacking in processes like NSF and NIH grant dispensation — in terms of how risk-averse and sheepish they are in their overall decision-making in comparison.
Michael Kearney and Anna Goldstein have a fantastic paper in which they looked at internal ARPA-H project selection data and found that, with the ARPA-H setup, projects that generated disagreement amongst experts were particularly likely to be selected. The following is an excerpt from the abstract of their paper:
Using internal project selection data from the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), we describe how a portfolio of projects selected by individual discretion differs from a portfolio of projects selected by traditional peer review. We show that ARPA-E program directors prefer to fund proposals with greater disagreement among experts, especially if at least one reviewer thinks highly of the proposal. This preference leads ARPA-E to fund more uncertain and creative research ideas, which supports the agency’s mission of pursuing novel ideas for transformational energy technology.
That is prime-time proof that leaving room for individual personalities and discretion is both possible in a government scientific organization and can lead to impressive results.
There is hope yet.
The burden of knowledge: a social problem or a knowledge problem?
Lastly, I’ll leave you with another interesting data point that is a follow-on to one of the Feynman shorts. In Weaver’s book, once again, we hear a 1970-ish account of a researcher who lived through and was active during the golden era of physics complaining about growing conference sizes, not the growing number of publications, making it more difficult to keep up with related areas of the scientific literature. Not only were conferences growing in size, but, in response, they also separated various disciplines into their own conferences to make conference logistics more manageable.
This is very interesting because, in much of the economics of innovation discourse on the burden of knowledge problem, researchers often assume that it is the sheer size of the literature causing the problem. But both Weaver’s and Feynman’s accounts seem to more directly blame the highly statistically correlated, but fundamentally different, change in conference dynamics and logistics that came with more and more researchers flooding into the community.
Weaver wrote of the early AAAS, having been a member since its inception:
This vast organization, with the largest membership of any general scientific society in the world, embraces all fields of pure and applied science. In the earlier days each branch of science conducted intensive sessions at which its own specialized research reports were given, and there was also some mild attempt to organize interdisciplinary sessions of general interest. Then the meetings got so large that they almost collapsed under their own weight. One group after another, first the chemists, then the physicists, the mathematicians, the biologists found it necessary to hold other and separate meetings. Attendance fell and the function of serving as a communication center between the various branches of science became less effective.
Now, I can’t go back in time and ask Weaver or Feynman, in their eyes, what percentage of the problem was a social problem and what percentage was the sheer size of the literature. But both of them mentioning one and not the other in their accounts should not be disregarded. And there is something poetic about the situation if this is a social problem. Weaver, and many other scientists of the day, seemed to acknowledge that science was often about people as much as ideas. And, when framed in this way, the burden of knowledge problem seems to become a lot more tractable as well.
Let’s think of putting on a good conference as like throwing a party. It seems obvious that growing the size of a party from 25 to 250 is not at all an obvious improvement in most cases. Sometimes, maybe yes. But usually, no. And, if the last party was too big, we should probably find a way to have smaller parties — even if more parties need to be thrown to account for everyone who wants to party. What groups like the AAAS, and many others, decided to do was, essentially, to throw separate parties of the 50 people who were the most similar to each other in terms of what they worked on. And, while you can do that, it’s kind of a ridiculous thing to do if you’re trying to foster cross-discipline idea sharing. Not to mention, it’s probably a much less good party than the wide-ranging one from before.
At a time when publications had roughly 10x’d, both Feynman and Weaver chose to talk about the masses of people flooding their conferences (and then conferences being held separately) rather than papers flooding their journals.
If the conferences cared about unique idea generation and facilitating new interdisciplinary work, they’d probably have scaled them in a very different way. If the AAAS wanted to double its membership, it could’ve held two separate interdisciplinary meetings where members were randomly assigned to one or another. Or, if it was afraid of its anomalously productive superstars getting separated from each other, it could’ve held interdisciplinary A-team and B-team meetings. Any number of things, really, as long as the goal was idea creation and the generation of new scientific branches.
But giving all of the fields their own meeting was a truly horrendous idea that didn’t take into account (at all) the production function of America’s most accomplished scientists. There were a non-negligible number of scientists, like Feynman, who kept abreast of related fields not by reading the literature, but simply by asking acquaintances at these conferences/attending talks as these (relatively) intimate conferences about the big ideas and developments of related fields. These conferences, at the time of Weaver’s writing and Feynman’s oral history, were really losing their souls.
More frank individuals, like James Watson, acknowledged that much of conferences as his field was growing was a handful of first-rate minds who consistently were generating an inordinate amount of the novel work talking to each other and learning with a lot of non-main characters taking up space who tended to contribute work that Feynman would call “addendums” to the important work in the literature.
If one wouldn’t want to take Watson’s word for it since most people think he’s an arrogant asshole, I’d get it. But even someone characteristically gracious like Feynman has hinted at this dynamic in his interviews. If you believe that kind of thing, an A-team and a B-team (etc.) AAAS conference is probably what you’d want. And if you don’t, something like two (or way more) randomly assigned conferences is probably up your alley.
In one of the coming long-form posts, I hope to further dive into the specifics of why certain fields, such as math and physics, began to diverge according to individuals that were around to watch it happen. Many researchers, such as Freeman Dyson, also, do not point to the size of the math and physics literature as the cause of those fields’ divergence. In general, being a researcher who spends a lot of time studying the history of this period, I am skeptical of arguments that make the size of the research literature out to be by far the most significant driver of the “burden of knowledge” in the mid-to-late 1900s.
While I am currently working on some pieces that dive into this hypothesis further, for now, I will leave you with Feynman and Weaver’s accounts and allow you to do with them what you will.
Until next time:)
If you liked this post you might also love: