Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Theater of Apollo

with 2 comments

In 1972, the physiologist Albert Szent-Györgyi, who won a Nobel Prize for his work on Vitamin C and the citric acid cycle, wrote a famous letter to the journal Science. He noted that scientists, like most creative types, can be roughly divided into two categories, variously known as the classical and the romantic, the systematic and the intuitive, or, as the physicist John R. Platt proposed, the Apollonian and the Dionysian. “In science,” Szent-Györgyi wrote, “the Apollonian tends to develop established lines to perfection, while the Dionysian rather relies on intuition and is more likely to open new, unexpected alleys for research.” After defining intuition as “a sort of subconscious reasoning, only the end result of which becomes conscious,” he continued:

These are not merely academic problems. They have most important corollaries and consequences. The future of mankind depends on the progress of science, and the progress of science depends on the support it can find. Support most takes the form of grants, and the present methods of distributing grants unduly favor the Apollonian. Applying for a grant begins with writing a project. The Apollonian clearly sees the future line of his research and has no difficulty writing a clear project. Not so the Dionysian, who knows only the direction in which he wants to go out into the unknown; he has no idea what he is going to find there and how he is going to find it. Defining the unknown or writing down the subconscious is a contradiction in absurdum. In his work, the Dionysian relies, to a great extent, on accidental observation…The Dionysian is often not only unable to tell what he is going to find, he may even be at a loss to tell how he made his discovery.

Szent-Györgyi, who clearly identified as a Dionysian, went on to state that writing grant proposals was always an “agony” for him, and that while he always tried to live up to Leo Szilard’s commandment “Do not lie without need,” he often had no alternative: “I filled up pages with words and plans I knew I would not follow. When I go home from my laboratory in the late afternoon, I often do not know what I am going to do the next day. I expect to think that up during the night. How could I tell, then, what I would do a year hence?” He added that while his “fake projects” were always accepted, his attempts to write down honestly what he thought he would do were invariably rejected:

This seems quite logical to me; sitting in an easy chair I can cook up any time a project which must seem quite attractive, clear, and logical. But if I go out into nature, into the unknown, to the fringes of knowledge, everything seems mixed up and contradictory, illogical, and incoherent. This is what research does; it smooths out contradiction and makes things simple, logical, and coherent. So when I bring reality into my projects, they become hazy and are rejected. The reviewer, feeling responsible for “the taxpayer’s money,” justly hesitates to give money for research, the lines of which are not clear to the applicant himself.

Szent-Györgyi concluded by saying that in his lifetime, he made two important discoveries, both of which “were rejected offhand by the popes of the field,” and that he had no doubt that they both would have been bounced with equal dispatch if he had tried to describe them in a grant application. And he left the problem without any real solution, except the suggestion that proposals for future research should either take into account the scientist’s earlier work or consider “the vouching of an elder researcher” who can attest to the applicant’s ability.

I’ve never had to apply for a grant, and I’d be curious to hear the perspectives of readers of this blog who have. But I’ve written book proposals, which presented me with a milder version of the dilemma that Szent-Györgyi described. (It’s milder, in part, because writers often work on spec, which means that the submission process in commercial publishing isn’t subject to the same pressures that you see in academia.) A proposal is a kind of map or miniature version of the finished work, whether it’s six pages long or seventy, and the author usually prepares it in a relatively short period of time, before the research or writing process has even begun. As a result, it can’t capture the information that the writer has to discover en route, as Ted Kooser puts it. It can only hint at what the author hopes to do or find, which, depending on your point of view, amounts to either a strong inference or a lie. It’s a system set up to reward or accommodate writers whose style lends itself to that kind of presentation, or who have the skills to fake it, and there are undoubtedly gifted people whom it excludes or discourages. Like grant writing, it exists primarily for the convenience of institutions, not individuals, and it creates a parallel world of obstacles that have to be navigated to get to the real challenge of doing interesting work. You could call it a necessary evil, or, if you’re feeling generous, you could argue that it’s a proxy for kinds of talent that can’t be measured directly. If you can handle the artificial, even ritualized strictures of the grant or proposal process, it’s a sign that you can tackle more important problems. Like an audition or a job interview, it takes on aspects of a game, and we’d like to believe that the test it provides will be predictive of good results later on.

It isn’t hard to find the flaws in this argument. (Among other things, until recently, I would have argued that the organizational demands of a successful political campaign serve as a similar audition for holding high office, and we’ve all seen how that turned out.) The greatest danger is the trap presented by all rituals of admission, which is that they ultimately measure nothing but the ability to pass the test. Just as college entrance exams and whiteboard interviews have inspired a cottage industry of books, tutors, and classes designed to coach applicants who can afford to pay for it, grant writing has mutated into grantsmanship, with its own rules, experts, and infrastructure. And the risks, as Szent-Györgyi said more than forty years ago, are very real. It’s a system that rewards researchers who are content, as Peter Medawar once put it, to figure out why thirty-six percent of sea urchin eggs have a tiny little black spot, simply because it’s the kind of project that can get funding. The grant application process may also play a role in the replication crisis in the social sciences, since it encourages applicants to project an unwarranted certainty that can be hard to relinquish when the data isn’t there. Perhaps worst of all, it penalizes whole groups of people, not just our hypothetical Dionysian geniuses, but also women and minorities who can’t always afford to play the game—and Szent-Györgyi’s otherwise reasonable suggestion that weight be granted to “the vouching of an elder researcher” only compounds the problem. If an Apollonian system resulted in a society of Apollos, we might be inclined to forgive it, but that isn’t the case. To the extent that it works, it’s because the division between Apollonian and Dionysian isn’t an absolute one, and most people learn to draw on each side at different times. Those who succeed have to be less like Apollo or Dionysus than, perhaps, like Hermes, the trickster who can change in response to the demands that the situation presents. And as flawed as the current system may be, we’ll have reason to miss it if it disappears.

Written by nevalalee

March 23, 2017 at 9:30 am

2 Responses

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  1. Grants: Granting bodies get reviewed themselves, so they need to pick winners. Like the rest of us, they want certainty where there can be none. But there are eminent academics. They offer some certainty. Even if they don’t produce, they clearly know how to _look_ good, and that’s enough. My (jaundiced) experience is this: People get grants because they have a history of getting grants. People who’ve not yet got grants need a grey eminence to share the application. If they get the right grey eminence (a powerful, politically savvy one), the younger is ‘someone who gets grants’ and the cycle repeats. Some of this is because they are getting trained in writing grants by the people who define what a good grant application looks like (the eminence effect — if eminent enough, you get to set the criteria for success). Most is because track record is the single most important factor. By far. The merits of the proposed science are a second order effect. Who is doing it is primary.

    I know that a major grant scheme broke up its scoring a grant application into: The team: 50%. The proposed project: 30%. The ‘research environment’: 20%. When you note that the last is effectively track record again, but for the institute rather than the individual, you now have 70% of the score based on track record. Even the most wonderful proposal simply cannot get up unless it has eminent people on it. Thus brilliant youngsters need to hand over come credit to eminent oldsters in return for them supporting the project (ie, putting their names on it), entrenching the oldsters still further.

    In short, scientists and the funders thereof are just human beings. They want brilliance and certainty all at once, and tend to err on the side of certainty. The grant process is a game, albeit one that makes and breaks careers and dreams.

    And it has to be a game when an application wants you to list, three years in advance, what breakthroughs you are going to make. (Tell me. Three weeks from now, on a Wednesday morning, what wonderful observation will you make?) It’s laughable, but understandable. It might almost be better to just gather the scientists together and throw the money into the air and see who catches it. Five years later we can read a report about how, remarkably, tall scientists get more funding.

    Bah.

    Darren

    March 23, 2017 at 10:16 pm

  2. @Darren: I appreciate the thoughtful response. And thanks for pointing out that granting bodies get reviewed themselves, which leads to its own set of incentives—that hadn’t occurred to me.

    nevalalee

    March 27, 2017 at 10:09 am


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