Friday, May 10, 2013

Slow Science vs Fast Science


I started as a graduate student in the olden days of slow science. Scholarship was slow because I often ran into a friend during the walk to the library, and maybe we stopped for some coffee. The library stacks were a huge distraction—a book title would catch my eye and I stopped to flip through, or I saw a stack of journals, and wondered what was published on my birthday (for example) and had to look it up. Access to faculty experts within the university was relatively fast, but it took time to figure out who was in what department, and what they were working on. A lot of this happened through a dynamic network of grad students. But an expert across the country or across the world? These were the early days of email, so writing was the best bet. It took time for a response, and collaboration required travel.

Fast science is fun. We now have instant access to almost everyone in the world. Your favorite modeler with the most sophisticated numerical magnetohydrodynamic code that can couple perfectly with your high density plasma experiments? She no longer has to be in your same department for a good scientific interaction. The possibility of active ongoing collaboration is as simple as email, dropbox, and maybe telephone.

We can learn almost anything we want. From my computer I have access to a huge amount of the world’s scientific knowledge. Online courses are arriving in droves; many are good already, and the best of these will only get better and better.

The world is changing; the way we do science is changing; and academic departments are going to change too. How does an academic department evolve, especially one largely populated by faculty who came of age in the days of slow-science? We change together, by discussing and thinking through forward-looking ideas, and hiring people who can help push us towards our visions.

 Tell me, readers: did you come of age in the days of slow or fast scholarship?  Do you prefer one mode over the other? Have your academic departments evolved to keep up with new and different modes of scholarship?

(Part 1 of 2)

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