Nature, Brain, and Culture

Although many neuroscientists are trying to figure out how the brain works, Mark Changizi is bent on determining WHY it works that way.

P, NP, And Is Academia Inhospitable to Big Discoveries?

The Big Theoretical Breakthrough: How Does One Write a Grant Proposal For That? Read More

Except . . .

While you have an interesting take on the issue, you might not want to use Deolalikar as an example. In posting his solution, he clearly states that he pursued this solution independently of his responsibilities at HP.


Whether HP, or private companies like it, are best for theoretical breakthroughs is another matter, indeed. My only point now is that academia would have ended up implicitly (or explicitly) discouraging it. (I wonder if, although HP didn't actively encourage it, perhaps the culture there helps encourage it. ? )

TaoBore is correct that

TaoBore is correct that Deolalikar was very explicit that this was done in his spare time. Academia at least provides some research flexibility.

Also, Grigori Perelman is not exactly what any mathematician would call "outside academia". He's not in the traditional American model, but he's not in private industry either.

And finally, I find it rich that you aren't pointing to any cognitive science examples, but instead have to reach over to mathematics and theoretical computer science. Go on, I dare you to look up the amount of money NSF gives to mathematics as compared to psychology and neuroscience -- not to mention all the NIH money mathematicians can only dream of touching -- before you complain about how hard your academic life was.

Oh, and it doesn't seem you were exactly forced out of academia either, unlike the hundreds of mathematicians going unemployed and being left high and dry by their graduate educations, with few skills marketable to private-sector employers.

I was never under the

I was never under the impression that Deolalikar did his work on the dime of HP. He did it outside of work. My own opinion is that, in industry, one isn't "duped" into thinking that one's paid work is one's research, whereas in academia people don't view their grant-funded as "paid" work -- they view it as their research, and so are less likely to engage in the risky "unpaid" ventures.

On Perelman, he didn't take up the tenure-track route, which shielded him from the standard scenario in academia today.

On math, the piece was topical, in the sense that it was motivated by the P/NP proof. That's why it begins in the math community. (BTW, my own PhD is in mathematics, and the lack of opportunity there could well partially explain why I'm now a scientist.)

And the comparison is not math versus cogSci. Math is disproportionately being hit by the "academic illness" I refer to because there are many fewer applied folk.

Rather, the issue concerns the "theorists", those aiming for theoretical breakthroughs in *any* field. Funding amounts in NSF and NIH in cogSci/neurosci aren't evidence for funding of what I'm talking about. You can't apply for a grant to make a theoretical breakthrough, in any field. (...except for the few grants that fund the person and not the proposal.)


When was this preprint (Google "Vinay Deolalikar" and follow obvious links) released? It is not the kind of paper which could be easily digested, as you say. On the other hand, on first glance, it does seem like it is bringing in the ideas one might expect to have to bring in (I means as a bias at the most general level).

(It took about four (five?) years for the mathematical community to really believe Perelman's proof is right. BTW, did he ever take the Clay money?)

Presumably it would (will?) take a lot less time to refute the proof than to verify it.

I am glad to see him falling back to the use of Finite Model Theory in his preprint. I have a bias on this problem that this will be necessary for a proof.

Wonder how long it will take to refute (probably) this ... ? (But of course we all (?) hope it will turn out to be real ... !)

BTW, interesting rant on funding. There are more people out there (here?) than you might think who are doing independent, unfunded work on this kind of problem. Unfortunately we're mostly hacks ...?

Growing consensus on the proof?

There appears to be a growing consensus that this proof has not succeeded. First Terence Tao gave a general analysis raising some specific questions. Now Neil Immerman has isolated two specific errors (on the Finite Model Theory side) in an open letter to the author of the proof.

Hospitality to new discoveries & Funding - Another approach

Thank you for sharing your ideas on academic hospitality to new discoveries and funding. I'm a young medical doctor fascinated by neurology and neuroscience and inspired by great thinkers that managed to achieve break through scientific research.

Reading your article, I understand that you touch on :
1)An Academic Reward structure problem: you suggest that creation of scientific break throughs on a theoretical level is not well aligned with the fact that you are expected to bring in money.

2)An Academic carreer structure problem which raises questions like: are the people with the best ideas in the right position to achieve them and are the people that are in the position to make progress the ones that are making progress? Are the people that are able to attract funding creating the right atmosphere for the people to foster break throughs?

3)A funding problem: you suggest that funding organisations and agencies are only interested concrete outcomes with immediate applicability.

4)A Competency problem: you suggest that people with the skills and talent of making theories are forced to create applied research projects to get funding, wasting time and energy.

5)The Design of an environment fostering academic breakthroughs: you don't seem to go into this topic explicitly, but your article implies that the main problem is in policy and university management.

Your article seems to revolve around 5 problems and you present us with one possible solution. In the text below, I would like to add an additional perspective to your writing with a different approach to a solution, while acknowledging the fact that 5 problems are likely to need multiple solutions instead of one.

As a young medical doctor my perspective on this situation would be the following: it seems that teaming up people with a divergent set of competencies and deep knowledge of various scientific fields, could create the next steps forward in science. It's the interaction between the applied researcher and the theorist, that gets the money in and allows science to move forward. It's the immediacy demanded from society and funders for result combined with the deep academic knowledge that assures money is well spent.

Now the missing link in academia may not be a lack of hospitality to big discoveries, but a lack of hospitality to training in generic skills allowing people to optimally benefit from each others talents.

From this perspective the solution is not in the policy and finance field as your article suggests. One could suggest to invest in training of generic skills instead:
1) High level generic skills trainings in all higher education
2) Peer and expert Mentoring and coaching at all levels of study
3) Targeted peer mentoring & coaching programs of junior researchers promoting leadership, sustainable & social (academic) enterpreneurship, creative thinking and academic problem solving.

With this suggested approach you may tackle 1) the current reward structure problem, as you raise the generic skill level and teamwork atmosphere in the department setting, 3) the Funding problem as innovative capacity of teams increases and the grant applications make more sense also from a theory making perspective 4) the competency problem was the focus of our solution. 1+3+4 contribute to issue 5) setting the optimal environment for scientific break throughs. This may also affect issue 2)academic carreer structure.

As students and young professionals we also putting these ideas in practice and doing the ground work to facilitate more attention for training of generic skills in an academic environment.

check out the following websites:
-- An initiative to exchange best practices in leadership training among international students associations, an annual event -- (
-- An organisation of international trainers supporting the leadership summerschool project. -- (
-- A summerschool on Parkinson's Disease for students for different walks of healthcare, which centers Teamwork in healthcare, innovation in education and creativity in academic research around the student. Outcome of this 9 day event consists of 3 peer reviewed (by a panel of experts & patients and carers) realistic, relevant research project proposals for research on Parkinson's Disease (basic sciences, translational as well as applied).

Interesting perspective. I

Interesting perspective. I myself believe that the interdisciplinary-collaborative approach is overblown. Each added person to a group reduces the group's intelligence. What one needs is to have the 'interdisciplinary', but all in ONE head.

One head

The problem is that this works for simple problems, but for interdisciplinary problems it requires years of training to perform in practice. Is it a good investment of public funds to train a clinician/researcher for 20 years before they have the interdisciplinarity in "one head", or does society get a better payoff if they simply show talented people how to work as part of a team? There are arguments on both sides of this, but if you gave me a problem to solve with a short time horizon my preference would be the latter. Just sayin'.

Professors who have solved old difficult problems

A couple of counter-examples:

Andrew Wiles (Fermat's Last Theorem)

Thomas Hales (The Kepler Conjecture)

and I'm sure that with a little thought one could
find lots more....

What one wants -- and what I

What one wants -- and what I have not done -- is a real attempt to quantify the extent to which "big theoretical breakthroughs" disproportionately happen outside of the main professor track.

What do you think

Hey Mark,

What do you think of my comment here :)

It may be taken in conjunction with this one:


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Mark Changizi is author of The Vision Revolution (Benbella), and Director of Human Cognition at 2AI Labs.


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