There is a very interesting interview with Alain Connes online. Connes, a renowned French mathematician, has some intriguing things to say on how a scientific research system is ought to be run.
Here is Connes describing his own education:
GBK: Do you have a good memory of Ecole Normale?
Connes: Sure! I can tell you what happened when I entered Ecole Normale in 66. I was coming from Marseille and had undergone two years of preparatory
school which was “bourrage de cranes”. We were learning how to calculate integrals, drawing garphs of functions etc.. and I was fed up with it. When
I arrived in Ecole Normal essentially I took one year off. It was like a hotel in Paris and we had fun, except that we were discussing mathematics all the
time with the other students. After that year I started working on my own research.
GBK: You didn’t have to take courses?
Connes: I didn’t go to any classes and didn’t know where the university was, so when I had to take the exam my friend had to take me to the exam room and I
saw the university for the first time!
GBK: So it was a leisure time!
Connes: No, it was not leisure it was freedom, it was some kind of reaction against the preparatory schools in which we were taught recipes to pass exams. I
just wanted to think quietly by myself and enjoy life of course, and that was given to us in Ecole Normale.
GBK: it was before 1969?
Connes: I entered in the fall of 66 and then came the events of 1968.
GBK: That was a turbulent time.
Connes:Yes 68 was a turbulent time. We had already built the right kind of mood for 68.
GBK: So your were in Paris in the best place and in the best time.
Connes: Yes it was a good time. I think it was ideal that we were a small group of people and our only motivation was pure thought and no talking about careers. We couldn’t care the less and our main occupation was just discussing mathematics and challenging each other with problems. I don’t mean ”puzzles” but problems which required a lot of thought, time or speed was not a factor, we just had all the time we needed. If you could give that to gifted young people it would be perfect.
GBK: For how many years were you there?
Connes: For 4 years, but as I said the first year was a free year and then I had to pass aggregation and I refused. I was one of the two people who refused to
undergo that exam because I didn’t want to go back to school time since I had barely managed to survive that before.
Here is Connes talking about the American university system:
GBK: You prefer the European approach to mathematics.
Connes: Of course. You know if I had been in the US I would have been obliged to enter into a system which I don’t like at all. But it was not for this reason that I refused to go. I had accepted a position in College de France 6 months earlier and of course I was not going to move to another place after that.
GBK: But you prefer the European system.
Connes: Of Course.
GBK: They say that European system is very good for heroes but it’s not for little guys for ordinary mathematicians.
Connes: In France we have a marvel which is the CNRS. It’s a place where gifted people can get positions that they can keep for the rest of their lives. The
main point is that it makes it possible for people like Lafforgue to think for many years about a problem without having to produce n papers per year and apply for an NSF grant. Young people can invest in long term projects which they could never do in a system with a short time unit.
GBK: This may work for some people and may backslash for others because they go there and do nothing for years.
Connes:You cannot decide before hand whom will be a Lafforgue and you will almost automatically have other people that will produce very little. It’s a rule. It is the price to pay to eliminate this pressure to write n papers per year which is nonsense in subjects which are really difficult. It takes 5-6 years to learn such a subject and you don’t produce anything in that long interval. The French system is extremely efficient in that sense that it gives to some people the ability to work without being constantly bugged by the need to produce a paper. It is totally different from other systems but it is successful. Most of the CNRS researchers in mathematics are very interesting and productive mathematicians. The only problem is that there is not enough communication with universities and I’ve been trying to change that for many years. There is not enough flexibility to exchange between CNRS
and the universities.
GBK: So what about the money to do research, to travel to do these things? All these things come from CNRS?
Connes: There is very little money available to travel and a lot of bureaucracy to get that little amount from CNRS.
GBK: Your salary is paid by the CNRS.
Connes: I am at College de France now and get my salary from there.
GBK: And that is not fixed you get promotions.
Connes: No, it is fixed.
GBK: No increases? no raise?
Connes: There is a maximum which one quickly attains. If you want the French system is not based on money but it might change. Intellectuals have for long cultivated a profound despise for money which at least was very present in my generation. When for example I applied to CNRS I applied for a low rank position because I cared so much more for “time” than for money.
MK: What you are saying is very relevant to here because here in Iran they are trying to build research institutes and grant systems and it is important to
take note of different systems that are available in the world and choose the one that is more appropriate.
Connes: I believe that the most successful systems so far were these big institutes in the Soviet union, like the Landau institute, the Steklov institute, etc. Money did not play any role there, the job was just to talk about science. It is a dream to gather many young people in an institute and make sure that their basic activity is to talk about science without getting corrupted by thinking about buying a car, getting more money, having a plan for career etc.... Of course in the former Soviet Union there were no such things as cars to buy etc so the problem did not arise. In fact CNRS comes quite close to that dream too, provided one avoids all interference from our society which nowadays unfortunately tends to become more and more money oriented.
GBK: You were criticizing the US way of doing research and approach to science but they have been very successful too, right? You have to work hard to get tenure, and research grants. Their system is very unified in the sense they have very few institutes like Institute for Advanced Studies but otherwise the system is modeled after universities. So you become first an assistant professor and so on. You are always worried about your raise but in spite of all these hazards the system is working.
Connes: I don’t really agree. The system does not function as a closed system. The US are successful mostly because they import very bright scientists from
abroad. For instance they have imported all of the Russian mathematicians at some point.
GBK: But the system is big enough to accommodate all these people this is also a good point.
Connes:If the Soviet Union had not collapsed there would still be a great school of mathematics there with no pressure for money, no grants and they would be more successful than the US. In some sense once they migrated in the US they survived and did very well but I believed they would have bloomed better if not transplanted. By doing well they give the appearance that the US system is very successful but it is not on it’s own by any means. The constant pressure for producing reduces the “time unit” of most young people there. Beginners have little choice but to find an adviser that is sociologically well implanted (so that at a later stage he or she will be able to write the relevant recommendation letters and get a position for the student) and then write a technical thesis showing that they have good muscles, and all this in a limited amount of time which prevents them from learning stuff that requires several years of hard work. We badly need good technicians, of course, but
it is only a fraction of what generates progress in research. It reminds me of an anecdote about Andre Weil who at some point had some problems with elliptic operators so he invited a great expert in the field and he gave him the problem. The expert sat at the kitchen table and solved the problem after several hours. To thank him, Andre Weil said “when I have a problem with electricity I call an electrician, when I have a problem with ellipticity I use an elliptician”.
From my point of view the actual system in the US really discourages people who are truly original thinkers, which often goes with a slow maturation at the technical level. Also the way the young people get their position on the market creates “feudalities” namely a few fields well implanted in key universities which reproduce themselves leaving no room for new fields.
GBK: In the US there are so many mathematicians. Their system produces about 1200 new PhD’s a year.
Connes: And they can’t find a position unless they belong to a field with the stamp
GBK: This is massive! astronomical!
Connes: But the problem is that whether or not they will find a position depends on
whom will write their recommendation letters. I am not saying what kind of letter they will get since all these letters look alike in their emphatic style. The result is that there are very few subjects which are emphasized and keep producing students and of course this does not create the right conditions for new fields to emerge. At least in France, if you have a position in CNRS you are allowed to do whatever you want and people are given the maximum freedom of thinking without any unhealthy social pressure to work in this or that field if one wants to secure one’s future!