Why I Just Left Academia
    By Mark Changizi | August 13th 2010 03:15 PM | 20 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Mark Changizi is Director of Human Cognition at 2AI, and the author of The Vision Revolution (Benbella 2009) and Harnessed: How...

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    This week a computer science researcher named Vinay Deolalikar claimed to have a proof that P is not equal to NP.

    Let’s set aside what this means for another day, lest I get distracted.  The important thing now is that this is big. Huge, even!

    If, that is, he’s correct.

    But correct or not, that’s the kind of thing one expects to see in academia. Tenure gives professors job security and research freedom, exactly the conditions needed to enable them to make the non-incremental breakthroughs that fundamentally alter the intellectual landscape. (And in the case of P not equal to NP, to acquire fame and fortune.)

    It is illuminating, then, to note that the man behind the new purported proof is not in academia at all, but in industry – at HP Labs.

    And he’s not alone in his non-academic status.

    For example, infamously reclusive mathematician Grigori Perelman (who proved the Poincare conjecture) rejected tenure-track positions for a research position.

    Big discoveries such as these from researchers outside of academia may be symptoms of a deep and systemic illness in academia, an illness which inhibits professors from making big-leap theoretical advances.

    The problem is simply this: You can’t write a grant proposal whose aim is to make a theoretical breakthrough.

    “Dear National Science Foundation: I plan on scrawling hundreds of pages of notes, mostly hitting dead ends, until, in Year 4, I hit pay-dirt.”

    Theoretical breakthroughs can’t be mapped out in advance. You can’t know you’ve broken through until you’re…through.

    …at which point there is nothing left to propose to do in a grant application.

    “Fine,” you might say. “If you can’t write a grant proposal for theoretical innovation, then don’t bother with grants.”

    And now we find the crux of the problem.

    In academia grant-getting is paramount. Universities are a business. Not a business of student education, and not a business of fundamental intellectual research. Universities are in the business of securing grant funds. That’s how they survive.  And because grants are the university’s bread and butter, grants become the academic professor’s bread and butter. 

    Getting grants is the principal key to individual success in academia today. They get you more space, more money, more monikers, more status, and more invitations to lunch with the president.

    To ensure one is in the good graces of one’s university, the young creative aspiring assistant professor must immediately begin applying for grants in earnest, at the expense of spending energies on uncertain theoretical innovation.

    In order to have the best chance at being funded, one’s proposed work will often be a close cousin of one’s doctoral or post-doctoral work.  And the proposed work – in order to be proposed at all – must be incremental, and consequently applied in some way, to experiments or to the construction of a device of some kind.

    So a theorist in academics must set aside his or her theoretical work, and propose to do experimental or applied work, where his or her talents do not lie.

    But if you’re good at theory, you really ought to be doing theory, not its application. If Vinay Deolalikar is right about his proof – and probably even if he’s mistaken – then he should be spending his time proving new things, not carrying out a five year plan to, say, build a better gadget based on it. There are others much better at the application side for that.

    But that’s where tenure comes in, right? With tenure, professors can forego grants, and become intellectually unhinged (in the good way).

    There are severe stumbling blocks, however.

    First, once one builds a lab via grant money (on the way to tenure), one’s research inevitably changes. And, without realizing it, one dupes oneself into thinking that the funded research direction is what one does. After all, it is the source of one’s new-found status.

    Second, once one has a lab, one does not want to become the person others whisper about as having “lost funding.” The loss of status is too psychologically severe for any mere human to take, and so maintaining funding becomes the priority.

    But to keep the funding going, the best strategy is to do more follow-up incremental work. …more of the same.

    And in what feels like no time at all, two decades have flown by, and (if you’re “lucky”) you’re the bread-winning star at your university and research discipline.

    But success at that game meant you never had time to do the creative theoretical leaps you had once hoped to do. You were transformed by the contemporary academic system into an able grant-getter, and somewhere along the way lost sight of the more fundamental overthrower-of-dogma and idea-monger (XXX) identity you once strived for.

    Were the “P is not equal to NP” proof claimer, Vinay Deolalikar, a good boy of academia, he would have spent his time applying for funding to apply computer science principles to, say, military or medical applications, and not wasted his time with risky years of effort toward proofs like the one he put together, where no grant-funding is at stake for the university. Were Vinay Deolalikar in academia, he’d be implicitly discouraged from such an endeavor.

    If we are to have any hope of understanding the brain, for example, then academia must be fixed. The brain is inordinately more complicated than physics, and in much more need of centuries of theoretical advance than physics. Yet theorists in neuroscience striving for revolutionary theoretical game-changers are extremely rare, and often come from outside.

    One simple step in the right direction would be to fund the scientist, not the proposal. The best (although still not great) argument that you’re capable of theoretical innovation is that you’ve had one or more before. This solves the dilemma of impossibly proposing to have a seminal theoretical discovery.

    In the longer term, more is needed. New models for funding academics must be invented, where the aim is for a system that optimally harnesses the creative potential of professors to change the world, and not just to keep universities afloat.

    Mark Changizi is the author of THE VISION REVOLUTION (Benbella, 2009) and HARNESSED: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man (Benbella, 2011); he was recently attracted to a position outside of academia, as the Director of Human Cognition at 2AI Labs.


    It could not have been said any better. To this, I would like to add that, as far as I know, the number of available tenure positions are becoming less and less. I know many professors whose position is bound to money. Without money, the position is suspended, hence they have to scramble to get grants, or enter the job market with a strong, difficult-to-sell specialization, very few institutes able (or willing) to accept him, and generally old for steering to a different task. In Europe, the only country still granting tenure is France. All other countries moved to a no-tenure system, or to fixed term contracts. Clearly, this pushes people to the private sector, where contracts are long-term, salaries are higher and collaboration and management is way more effective.

    This, of course, afaik.

    Dear CEO of a well known unethical corporation,

    I need funding for a study which will show how beneficial to academia it would be if, as a matter of academic principle, all grant monies were to come from a central pool.

    Corporations would be entirely free to advertise how much they contribute to science in the abstract, but academia would be immune to any claim of lack of ethics or of bias due to sources of funding.

    On the assumption - based on many academic studies - that you like this proposal as much as you like hornets in your pants, I shall meanwhile continue to work outside of academia unfunded by any corporation or institution.

    I shall, however, always remember you with fondness for having once furnished me with a quarter of the month's rent for this freezing garret,

    There's no question academia is not for everyone but, flaws or not, the value per dollar spent is still tops in the world.    There is a disproportionate ratio of government and private research funding and I think it is backwards - but I get that if government will fund research, there is no reason for the private sector to do so.

    Welcome to the private sector, Mark.   The money is better, the work is the same but the expectations are a little different:

    Big discoveries such as these from researchers outside of academia may be symptoms of a deep and systemic illness in academia, an illness which inhibits professors from making big-leap theoretical advances.

    In "The Trouble with Physics" Lee Smolin goes to town on this issue, going so far as to argue that what is needed are "seers": people who can devote their whole time wholeheartedly to attacking the fundamentals. It is very difficult to be creative at that level when you have to teach, run a lab, take care of posgrads, funding, ethics etc etc. Big breakthroughs require enormous intellectual effort that must be concentrated, modern academia is diametrically opposed to providing such an environment. Needs to change.

    Mark Changizi
    "seers" huh. I'll get Smolin's book...  Thanks. -Mark
    Gerhard Adam
    It is very difficult to be creative at that level when you have to teach, run a lab, take care of postgrads, funding, ethics etc etc. Big breakthroughs require enormous intellectual effort that must be concentrated, modern academia is diametrically opposed to providing such an environment. Needs to change.
    I have to disagree.  On the one hand I can certainly appreciate the problem, but it seems like this is no solution except to argue for some arbitrary privilege.  I'm not convinced that the most important breakthroughs occur by those that might be perceived as the most creative.

    The first thing that would happen is that there would be a "privileged" class of individuals that are charged with being "creative" and given the time to pursue whatever interests they like.  However, I also suspect that we would see no increase in results and that the majority would still occur from those outside that privileged position.

    Science, like creativity, and insights are not a factory production line and I'm deeply suspicious of any attempts to turn them into that. 

    The problem I actually have with this is much more complex and gets to the roots of what science means (in my view).  It seems that science was never about having a job or a career, or about acquiring fame, or patents.  Science was about a fundamental curiosity that humans have regarding their environment and ultimately satisfying that curiosity.  That makes it more of an idealistic view of the world and humans, rather than a practical one.

    I understand the need for people to have jobs and careers, but we do have to question the costs of turning science into an "industry".  At the center of this argument is that it seems we are no longer driven by curiosity, but more by obsession.  It seems that science has shifted its focus from understanding to a posture of exploitation.  Obviously this isn't true across the board, but I think it bears some consideration.

    Certainly many would argue that our modern society is built on this type of exploitation and increase in scientific endeavors, but to me that is the argument of obsession.  In other words, we no longer do science because we like it, we do it because we have to.

    Despite the number of brilliant people on the planet, the simple reality is that for most, there will never be that fundamental discovery that alters scientific thought.  There will be small incremental steps and there will be small advancements and increases in knowledge.  I also suspect that for most, their careers will simply be mediocre affairs.  So, in the end, I have to say that science needs to be less managed and not more and the last thing we should do is be singling out people as being the "seers" of the future.
    Mundus vult decipi
    I agree with most of what you say, and I applaud your courageous move. Looking forward to seeing exciting things from your new company.

    Mark Changizi
    Thanks, Alex. -Mark
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    I'm also trying to decide whether to continue in academia and I have to agree with everything you've written here, so maybe its not such a good idea.
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at
    Honestly, at this point, the money matters more than the science. After doing a PhD for barely minimum wage and looking at a post-doc for slightly above minimum wage, I really don't care for the science. Most of my peers agree with me; it's not worth toiling for a decade at subsistence wages doing academic science when the industry/government pays 5x the amount. Considering how much time and energy goes into graduate and post-graduate work, it's a crime that we aren't paid more. If I knew now what I should have known 5 years ago, I would have taken a different route I believe.

    You just displayed why central public funding is preferable to the other way around for basic research. I hope it will stop sounding like an alien soviet thing to americans real soon.

    It says just the opposite - centralized funding of research via the US government, now up to 70%, has made the problem worse.   Steven Chu, now Pres. Obama's Secretary of Energy but respected physicist before that, got his Nobel prize at Bell Labs, not for work done at Stanford.

    When researcher funding becomes a political football, only the best politicians get it.
    I agree with much of what you say.
    Sorry for the off-topic, but:

    > For example, infamously reclusive mathematician Grigori Perelman (who proved the Poincare conjecture) rejected tenure-track positions for a research position.

    Sorry, I must have missed something.
    I'm not a native English speaker and I've never worked in the US (I'm a post-doc and my entire 10-years career has been spent in Europe, and I've never applied to a position of any kind outside of this continent) so maybe I always misunderstood the exact meaning of what you call Academia, but I thought that my job, like Grigori Perelman's job, is an "academic position" (in short, I thought that a "research position" is a particular case of an "academic position").
    Grigori Perelman, according to his wikipedia page and a link therein (, turned down positions at Princeton and Stanford in favour of a research-only position at the Steklov Institute in Saint Petersburg, where he had started his career.

    "(...) in 1994, Perelman was widely recognized as a star and offered positions at both Stanford and Princeton. He declined both offers, rejecting Princeton’s because the math department had the temerity, in his view, to ask for a CV. Perelman thought the results he’d already proved and a lecture he’d given there should have been sufficient to warrant granting him immediate tenure. In 1995 he returned to the Steklov Institute. "

    So, if we take this quote at face value, he didn't reject a tenure-track position because of a distaste for academia, but because he felt insulted in not being offered a tenured position on the spot. A tenured ACADEMIC position.

    Anyway, as I said, this is just an off topic.
    Perelman is certainly a good example for the point you want to make, whether he was a member of academia when he posted his most important papers on arxiv or not, because he didn't play by the rules of academia.

    Mark Changizi
    I'm using "academia" to refer more specifically to the tenure-track University/College structure, not the variety of other research positions. (For the latter, "academic" may well apply, but "academia" often refers more specifically to the former.)

    As for Perelman's motivations for not taking a position in academia, that's interesting, indeed.
    My impression is that academic institutions today still provide the better environment for making breakthrough discoveries, compared to industry. For instance, the 2009 Nobel Laureates in Physiology/Medicine and Chemistry did their award-winning work in academic institutions. Here is a list of Nobelists in the sciences who spent major portions of their careers at California universities.

    Herbert Abrams Stanford
    Hannes Alfven UCSD
    Luis W. Alvarez UC Berkeley
    Carl D Anderson Caltech
    Kenneth Arrow Stanford
    David Baltimore Caltech
    George Wells Beadle Stanford/Caltech
    Paul Berg Stanford
    Michael J. Bishop UCSF
    Felix Bloch Stanford
    Baruch Blumberg Stanford
    Paul D. Boyer UCLA
    Melvin Calvin UC Berkeley
    Owen Chamberlain UC Berkeley
    Steven Chu Stanford
    Donald J. Cram UCLA
    Paul Crutzen UCSD
    Gerard Debreu UC Berkeley
    Max Delbruck Caltech
    Renato Dulbecco Caltech/UCSD/Salk
    Gerald Edelman Scripps Research
    Richard Feynman Caltech
    Paul Flory Stanford
    William A. Fowler Caltech
    Murray Gell-Mann Caltech
    William F. Giauque UC Berkeley
    Donald L. Glaser UC Berkeley/Caltech
    Maria Goeppert-Mayer UCSD
    Roger Guillemin UCSD/Salk
    John Harisanyi UC Berkeley
    Alan J. Heeger UCSB
    Dudley Herschback Stanford
    Robert Hofstadter Stanford
    Robert W. Holley UCSD/Salk Institute
    Louis J. Ignarro UCLA
    Walter Kohn UCSB
    Arthur Kornberg Stanford
    Herbert Kroemer UCSB
    Willis Lamb Stanford
    Robert B. Laughlin Lawrence Livermore/Stanford
    Ernest O. Lawrence UC Berkeley
    Joshua Lederberg Stanford
    Yuan T. Lee UC Berkeley
    Edward B. Lewis Caltech
    Willard F. Libby UCLA
    William N. Lipscomb Caltech
    Daniel McFadden UC Berkeley
    Edwin M. McMillan UC Berkeley/Caltech
    Rudolph A. Marcus Caltech
    Harry M. Markowitz UCSD
    Robort C. Merton Caltech
    Robert A. Millikan Caltech
    Czeslaw Milosz UC Berkeley
    Thomas Hunt Morgan Caltech
    Rudolf Mossbauer Caltech
    Kary Mullis UC Berkeley
    Fend Murad Stanford
    John H. Northrop UC Berkeley
    George A. Olah USC
    Douglas D. Osheroff Caltech/Stanford
    George E. Palade UCSD
    Linus Pauling (two awards) UCSD/Caltech/Stanford
    Arno Penzias Stanford
    Martin Perl Stanford
    Stanley B. Prusiner UCSF
    Leo James Rainwater Caltech
    Frederick Reines UC Irvine
    Burton Richter Stanford
    F. Sherwood Rowland UC Irvine
    Arthur Schawlow Stanford
    Myron Scholes Stanford
    Robert J. Schrieffer UCSB
    Melvin Schwartz Stanford
    Julian Schwinger UCLA
    Glenn Seaborg UC Berkeley
    Emilio G. Segre UC Berkeley
    William Sharpe Stanford
    William Shockley Caltech/Stanford
    Roger W. Sperry Caltech
    Wendell M. Stanley UC Berkeley
    Edward Tatum Stanford
    Henry Taube Stanford
    Richard Taylor Stanford
    Howard M. Temin Caltech
    Charles H. Townes UCBerkeley/Caltech
    Harold C. Urey UCSD
    Harold E. Varmus UCSF
    Kenneth G. Wilson Caltech
    Robert W. Wilson Caltech
    Ahmed H. Zewail Caltech

    Mark Changizi
    I haven't tried a proper empirical study of this, indeed.  But some things to keep in mind. (i) My point here applies to theoretical breakthroughs only, not experimental breakthroughs (where the current grant mechanisms may be just fine). (ii) The situation in academics has changed over time -- the centrality of grants was much weaker a generation or two ago. (iii) Any study of this would have to not merely ask where do we find more theoretical breakthroughs, but where do we find *disproportionately* more. That is, academia historically and to this day has a strong majority of all researchers, and so, of course, most theoretical breakthroughs will still end up occurring there. The question is how well the current university mechanisms and structures help that, or hinder that. And to see that, we'd like to have data on the probability of theoretical breakthroughs in academia and out, and not focus on raw "amounts" of people.
    Interesting article. Perhaps what you've omitted is the resistance to breakthroughs from what might be described as "the competition". If some guy has a new idea, then if it's right, it means that the old idea is wrong. And there can be a lot of vested interest behind that old idea. I don't know much about neuroscience, but I'm confident that there are issues of this kind in physics. I see Lee Smolin's "The Trouble with Physics" has been mentioned already. Also see Peter Woit's "Not Even Wrong" and take a look at "In search of the black swans" at Scientific progress in biochemistry has been pretty good in recent decades. However in physics it's been more or less stalled. Yes, there's some good stuff in say optics and condensed matter physics, but not in fundamental physics or HEP. I'd say this is because physicists struggle against imposed "consensus" to get breakthrough ideas into journals and then communicate them via the media at large. For example New Scientist have a fondness for "quantum woo" and the saying "string theory is the only game in town". They don't seem too interested in publicising say or Sometimes it seems as some sections of the physics community are in the mystery business, promoting weirdness and woo instead of scientific understanding. Jo Magueijo would describe it as cargo-cult science, and IMHO he's not far off.

    John Duffield

    Mark Changizi
    On resistance, I agree. And by being aloof, although I believe there's a lot of advantages, there are disadvantages, one big one being that your outsider-status could make the problem you point out more difficult.
    I imagine it does. It's difficult enough for an insider to get a "breakthrough" paper accepted and then out to a wider audience. IMHO there's some truth in the old saying science advances one death at a time, and it tends to be airbrushed out of history. Take a look at page 53 of Graham Farmelo's The Strangest Man and it mentions how Einstein was still being dismissed in Cambridge in 1923. That's 18 years after his "miracle year", 4 years after the first experimental confirmation of GR, and 2 years after his Nobel prize for his QM contribution. This kind of thing reminds me of trying to turn a supertanker. It takes time.

    John Duffield