Monday, January 04, 2021

It is a truth that Universties should be acknowledged... be an efficient and effective way to get basic research done.

basic research is inherently very inefficient - in a naive sense, it is a random walk through a very lumpy landscape full of local minima, and some very very steep hills. like evolution, it takes a long time, and wastes a lot of resources along the way. just like universities. however, universities do several other things 

  • a spot of higher education
  • creating communities
  • offering advanced advice to governments and industry
  • curating the next world class comedy teams
  • keeping social misfits busy & off the streets
  • etc etc
So provided you have the right mix (as per Humboldt's original german vision, and as quite a few  of the classic latter half of 20th century UK universities achieved), people can switch between these activities, just often enough to make good us of their time (efficient) but not so often as to interrupt their chain of thought (effective). As with most social organisations, the distributions of people and these activities are unfair (heavy tailed) in the sense that people and institutions that are more effective at basic research attract people who can carry it out, but who also are not too bad at teaching the sorts of students those institutions attract. Of course, these things (institutions, people, activities of interest) change over time, so baking-in which should be long term rewarded for what mix is a really really bad idea.  The next internet, vaccine, carbon capture technology, you name it, will not arise where you expect it (those darn lumpy landscapes:-)

i.e. down with the REF -

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