Pure AND applied research

A great article in the New York Times today by Stephen Quake on the artificial divide between pure and applied research.

These transcendent figures in the history of science flourished by moving back and forth between pure and applied problems. In today’s more specialized world, there are numerous artificial divisions between pure and applied work: different departments, different professional societies, and different journals. The stereotyped view is that the applied scientists control the lion’s share of funding, while the basic scientists control the most prestigious journals and prizes. The reality is more complicated and lies somewhere in between.

Whenever I hear that academics need freedom so they can devote themselves to pure research I cringe. And it is precisely for this reason. My belief is that for the most part pure research can translate into the applied and vice versa. Even in my own field of economics, there are still many academics who believe that to pay attention or be concerned about real world problems diverts them from some noble goal of pure thought. The evidence from our greatest scientists provides a clear counterpoint.

Something I didn’t know

From Michael Nielsen:

How many of Einstein’s 300 plus papers were peer reviewed? According to the physicist and historian of science Daniel Kennefick, it may well be that only a single paper of Einstein’s was ever subject to peer review. That was a paper about gravitational waves, jointly authored with Nathan Rosen, and submitted to the journal Physical Review in 1936. The Physical Review had at that time recently introduced a peer review system. It wasn’t always used, but when the editor wanted a second opinion on a submission, he would send it out for review. The Einstein-Rosen paper was sent out for review, and came back with a (correct, as it turned out) negative report. Einstein’s indignant reply to the editor is amusing to modern scientific sensibilities, and suggests someone quite unfamiliar with peer review:

Dear Sir,

We (Mr. Rosen and I) had sent you our manuscript for publication and had not authorized you to show it to specialists before it is printed. I see no reason to address the in any case erroneous comments of your anonymous expert. On the basis of this incident I prefer to publish the paper elsewhere.


P.S. Mr. Rosen, who has left for the Soviet Union, has authorized me to represent him in this matter.

Wow. And there is more in the post, especially regarding how comparatively recent peer-review became a formal practice.