Interview with Paul Drake

R. Paul Drake is the Henry S. Carhart Collegiate Professor of Space Science at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He has worked as a research physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and had visiting professorships at universities around the United States. He was featured in the BBC’s documentary Hyperspace (2001) and the Discovery Channel’s How the Universe Works (2009). Currently, Dr. Drake is also Director of Center for Radiative Shock Hydrodynamics at the University of Michigan.

Kaizen: How did you become interested in science as a kid?

Drake: I am not sure. I have been interested in how things worked and in doing things connected with understanding and assembling things as long as I can remember. I remember avidly playing with an Erector set, the mechanical precursor of LEGOs. And I remember doing things with a chemistry set at ages when I don’t have a lot of other memories; so for me, it was those kinds of things were interesting to me from the start. Some people have an experience where they get turned on to something that becomes their future. I don’t have that in my background.

Kaizen: Where did you grow up?

Drake: My grade school years were spent in a suburb of Chicago, Illinois where my dad worked as a patent lawyer for Zenith Radio and Television. When I started middle school, he moved the family to Colorado, which was the old family environs, and from then on I was in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Kaizen: Did your dad, mom, or other siblings have an interest in the sciences or engineering?

Drake: Well, my dad had an electrical engineering degree from Colorado, Boulder, and had worked as an electrical engineer for a few years before going back to law school and then became a patent lawyer. He had a lot of technical expertise and interest. My siblings did not become scientists and my mother was an RN.

Kaizen: Growing up did you get the sense, by the time you were in middle school or high school, that science or engineering, or something like that, was where you wanted to go?

Drake: I was not at all sure. I always had very broad interests and in middle school I thought I would major in psychology and physics when I went to college, reflecting that breadth of interests. When I was a sophomore in high school, I read Rand’s books and that certainly pushed me into philosophy. But I’ve had quite a few students come into my research program from various backgrounds who had done philosophy and physics as double majors and I think an interest in fundamentals is the thing that tends to drive a wide variety of students into that pair of interests.

Kaizen: You did your undergraduate degree at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. What took you from Colorado to Tennessee?

Drake: It was a combination of being a serious student and a naïve young man. I wanted a place that was focused on the two things I wanted to major in, and there were a wide range of those. But I ended up struck by the marketing that Vanderbilt did, which was a very serious approach to their business. I did not understand at that time that this was marketing to the southern conservatives that form their core set of customers. While the other parts of the country were marketing to other demographic groups and in different ways that didn’t happen to appeal to me.

Kaizen: At Vanderbilt you ended up majoring in both philosophy and in physics?

Drake: Yes, I did.

Kaizen: What connections between philosophy and physics were interesting to you?

Drake: Well, the philosophy of science and philosophical issues that connect with things scientific were very much a present interest of mine at the time. So some of the coursework I did was connected with philosophy of science. I also very much enjoyed an aesthetics course from a particularly good teacher, so I wasn’t limited to that. The undergraduate thesis I did in philosophy was oriented toward causality.

Kaizen: So more metaphysical themes?

Drake: Yes.

Kaizen: It’s An Aristotelian Account of Causality.

Drake: That’s the title of the thesis, yes.

Kaizen: Why Aristotelian? Was Aristotle, in your judgment, the most science-friendly of the philosophers?

Drake: I think I was strongly influenced by Objectivism in making that choice. But, in addition, I had been reading Aristotle for a number of years at that point and his entity-based approach to causation I found more complete than the Humean “one event leads to another event,” which is a rather incomplete way of thinking about the changes in some object in response to the world around it.

Kaizen: Would you say it wasn’t merely historical interest but that you thought Aristotle had contemporary relevance?

Drake: Yes, I did. But, like many students at that phase, I was interested in seeing where one could take that set of ideas. I wanted to understand for myself within the framework that Aristotle lays out and within the context of modern knowledge what can one proceed to say about causality. So it was more of an internal exploration than a scholarly document.

Kaizen: Did you also get a good physics education, in your judgment?

Drake: I did get a good physics education. I particularly treasured the emphasis in the Vanderbilt curriculum on conceptual understanding and not just mathematical manipulation. However, my physics education was not aimed at grad school, because I thought I would probably end up a philosophy professor. Instead I found I greatly enjoyed the physics. It was a lot of fun to do the problem sets and to read and to come to understand the different ways of evaluating how things function in the world. Then the immediate kicker was sometime around junior year I learned that you can get paid to go to grad school in the sciences. That made it an easy decision. My first decision was, “Okay, I will go do a doctorate in physics and then I will go do a doctorate in philosophy.”

Kaizen: What were you thinking your likely career path would be?

Drake: By the time I graduated from undergraduate school I thought I would do both the physics doctorate and a philosophy doctorate in philosophy of science and end up a philosophy professor specializing in philosophy of science. Having said that, however, I’ve never been one to plan my life more than a few years at a time. So the main thing that mattered to me internally was this vector, “I am going to go do this next.”

Kaizen: You went to graduate school in physics at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Why there?

Drake: I had a rather unusual background—I was missing several courses that would normally be required by a top physics graduate school, although my test scores were very, very high. Johns Hopkins at the time was ranked about number 20 in physics, and at the time Johns Hopkins had a focus on looking for people like me: People who might turn out to succeed very well but who would not be picked up by the Harvards or the Princetons because their background wasn’t the boilerplate, standard preparation that one expects and that any top school can demand.

Kaizen: Physics is a broad field. What did you focus on in grad school?

Drake: Right. At Johns Hopkins I went to work for an advisor who was in the astrophysics group, but he was applying spectrometers to studying machines that were trying to make fusion in magnetic bottles. The reason was that if you are going to put a spectrometer—an inherently fairly delicate instrument—into a very industrial environment, it needs to be quite tough. He and his colleagues had been building and flying spectrometers on rocket ships for quite a while.  They knew how to build spectrometers that could survive rocket ships, and that is not so different than what is needed to survive an industrial environment. So he had a sideline program in applying these spectrometers to fusion devices.

Kaizen: What’s his name, by the way?

Drake: H. Warren Moos. He had a sideline that was funded in the 70’s in nominal dollars at a level that would be a healthy research program for a professor in physics or a related field now as the entire program. This sideline enabled myself and a number of my colleagues to build these instruments, prepare them go to the magnetic bottle machines, make measurements, and discover things about what was happening.

Kaizen: For your dissertation work, what was your particular focus there?

Drake: It was along the lines of “an extreme ultraviolet spectroscopic study of a magnetic mirror fusion machine.”

Kaizen: After your Ph.D., you went to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California?

Drake: That’s correct. I actually made the measurements for my thesis at Lawrence Livermore Lab. Livermore wanted to hire me, and I was having an awful lot of fun doing what I was doing. They were even willing to let me change my focus—I didn’t want to go where I had gotten the data and do the exactly the same thing, because it is easy to typecast yourself. They were willing to accommodate that, to let me go there and switch my emphasis.

Kaizen: What made them interested in you?

Drake: I’m good.

Kaizen: There are a lot of good physics people, though. Had you interned there or gone to conferences?

Drake: No, I got my data there. My advisor at John Hopkins initially made contact with the scientists at their magnetic fusion research operation there and they made an arrangement that another student and I would take a spectrometer out and make some measurements on their machine. At that time people thought that this particular type of magnetic bottle would throw out the elements above hydrogen preferentially so there wouldn’t be very many. The notion was we’d do a three-month study and prove that there weren’t very many of these elements. That is a good thing in the magnetic fusion business, and then we would be done.

So we set up our instrument and we opened up its apertures very wide to collect the most possible signal—and we were lucky we didn’t destroy it on the first shot—it had enormous amounts of signal compared to the expectations. There were large quantities of these elements heavier than hydrogen present. Then my advisor came out and gave the old famous quote, “If there’s so much horseshit around, there’s got to be a horse in here somewhere.” He left me to figure out what it was and, indeed, I did figure out what it was and that turned into a thesis. The process gave the program at Livermore a good look at me and they very much wanted me on board.

Kaizen: What did you work on next at Livermore?

Drake: I moved from what would be called plasma spectroscopy in the thesis phase to studying the confinement of plasma in the magnetic bottle—so, plasma confinement. In a real sense that is when I began to learn plasma physics.

Kaizen: How long were you at Livermore? Eventually you became a professor in California.

Drake: Right. So I worked in magnetic fusion for three years at Livermore and ended up very angry with a couple of my bosses and decided to move to something else. I had a couple of university offers, but I couldn’t talk my wife into leaving at that time, so I ended up going into the laser fusion program.

One of the nice things about big research labs for people thinking about science careers is that it’s often easy to move within the big lab from one area of research to another. Lateral movement is comparatively easy.

So I went into laser fusion, started learning that area of physics, and I worked in that for seven years. Then I had an opportunity to get a position that was joint with the University of California, Davis. It was a half-time professorship at Davis and running an institute at the Livermore lab devoted to increasing connections between universities and Livermore. I did that for another six years before my wife and I decided we were both ready to move and ended up landing in Michigan in 1996.

Kaizen: Your position at Michigan combines teaching with research?

Drake: Yes. That is the normal state of affairs for somebody at what is known as a Research University. The normal professor is expected to teach and do research and do service in some combination.

Kaizen: Was it a difficult transition from a pure research position into significant amounts of teaching as well?

Drake: I always liked to teach and did a variety of self-initiated creation of teaching opportunities as a teenager. I had done quite a bit of classroom teaching in the UC-Davis years, so the teaching was welcome. When you start teaching new courses, there is a lot of work, but other than having to fit in a lot of work, it’s interesting and creative work.

Kaizen: In addition to your teaching you’ve also published, by the last count I saw, over 140 scholarly papers?

Drake: There are more than a 180 refereed publications and 220 citable publications, increasing rather rapidly in the present phase of my career.

Kaizen: You also directed the Space Physics Research Lab?

Drake: I did that for four years, from 1998 to 2002, and that ended.

Kaizen: Was it a pre-existing lab there?

Drake: Yeah. That is a very long-term, long-established laboratory. It has hardware flying all over the solar system.

Kaizen: And what does it do?

Drake: It does engineering and other technical work involved in preparing hardware for flight in space.

Kaizen: What was your job as director?

Drake: As director of that organization, my job was mostly administrative, and one of the issues was to assure the even treatment of the faculty who depended on the resources of the lab.

Kaizen: At the same time you transitioned to high-energy-density physics and in 2006 you published the first textbook in that field?

Drake: Yes, in a real sense I began learning parts of high-energy-density physics in 1982 when I moved into laser fusion. Laser fusion is an application of high-energy-density physics, and as I worked on a variety of different problems over the next decade I became more familiar with various areas of it. And once I was at Michigan with an active program in it, the fact that there was no textbook in the field became evident and something very worth fixing.

Kaizen: Was high-energy-density physics, then, a relatively new field that had now matured to the point where there was a need for a textbook, and you were in a position to write it?

Drake: That’s exactly right. I date the origin of the field from 1979, which was the point at which the first devices which were high energy lasers became sophisticated enough to do focused physics experiments, and it’s also the time when the first user facility was created and one began to see the growth of university programs in that area.

Kaizen: Is that a textbook pitched at undergraduate or graduate level?

Drake: It’s for graduate students. First-year graduate students find it a bit challenging, so it’s the second year or later.

Kaizen: Around the time your book came out, the University of Michigan received a major grant—$17 million over five years—from the National Nuclear Security Administration, and you were chosen to be the director of the new center?

Drake: The funding was initiated in 2008. The award was announced in 2007. In 2006 we were working on the proposal. At the proposal phase you choose the leader of such things. This is an effort that involves more than 20 faculty members and at this point 30 graduate students. It’s quite large. At that time, my research team’s contribution would not be the dominant focus of the center, and I expected that one of my colleagues would end up running it and I would be supporting them. But when the question came up who should be the director, pretty much all in unison turned and pointed at me.

There is some funny back story there, which is that in my career at the Livermore Lab I worked rather hard not to get onto the line-management track, because I knew that is generally a one-way path that takes you away from doing science. I ended up with some fancy titles but never with a job that really demanded full-time involvement in management. The managers at Livermore never managed to put me in a serious management position, but through democracy my colleagues at my University of Michigan did it to me.

Kaizen: How willing or unwilling were you to take this on, given the popular acclaim, so to speak?

Drake: Well, I was willing to do it. They had some arguments that I was the right choice and I thought they were good arguments.

Kaizen: What did they see in you that led them to want you as director?

Drake: I’m a natural project manager, I organize things effectively, and people respond well to my leadership.

Kaizen: What is the center’s purpose?

Drake: The center has an overall purpose in an area known as predictive science, which is kind of a strange name. Predictive science refers to methods through which one can understand how predictive a model or theory is. In other words, how accurate it will be in predicting some new phenomenon. And it’s a broader area: a lot of it is referred to as uncertainty quantification—the process of quantifying how uncertain some prediction is. So the job of the center in abstract terms is to develop new methods of quantifying the uncertainty of predictions.

Kaizen: So lots of applied epistemology, mathematical statistics, and so on?

Drake: Right. The part that you think of when I say those words involves statistical methods and their application, which you must have something to apply them to and that’s got to include some kind of a model that does predicting and it’s got to include something that is predicted. So we have experiments that are the something that is predicted and we have a simulation code, or codes, that are doing calculations in a model to do the predicting, and then we have the statistical methods to put the information together and speak to the future.

Kaizen: The funding agency—the National Nuclear Security Administration—is part of the U.S. Department of Energy. Why is it funding predictive science or uncertainty research?

Drake: The NNSA, as we call it, has a specific challenge, which is that its laboratories must certify to Congress and the President whether or not our nuclear weapons would work if we used them. But they are not allowed to test these devices, since President Clinton signed the Test-Ban Treaty in 1992. So the methods of assessing the accuracy of complex calculations are important to their mission and, as a result of that, the NNSA chose to call for and support some fundamental science programs that would develop methods and train people that might be of use to this mission of this administration and their labs.

Kaizen: The $17 million over five years is $3.4 million per year—how many staff and sub-projects does that fund?

Drake: There are in the vicinity of 50 people involved. That includes professors and students working on specific problems, or professors working with individual grad students on specific issues of interest to the problem. It includes a core group of research faculty—scientists who work full-time on issues for the center—and various technical staff as well.

Kaizen: As director of the Center, you have a large number of functions: research, writing, managing people, grant writing and reporting, attending conferences, and so on. What is your typical work day or week or month like?

Drake: On the day or week scale, nothing is typical. As part of running such a large research program, I now teach much less than the average professor does, and the research grant supports a large fraction of my time.

Kaizen: Does that mean teaching one course a semester, or one course a year?

Drake: I average one a year. My research-active colleagues average one a semester. In research universities, that’s fairly common and in the upper echelon of these universities, research-active professors teach a course per term. And then the number of courses taught goes up as one goes down the rankings and the expectations for research accomplishments go down as one goes down.

Kaizen: If we scale out to a month, then.

Drake: The month will have some time spent in working with the staff or the scientists in the center, to make sure that we are accomplishing the things that we need to accomplish. It will include some time working with the grad students, to steer them and educate them. It will include a significant amount of time writing grants and papers. It will include some kind of national level service work—service on a national panel or some other function that I am asked to perform for the sake of the national evolution of the science that I am involved in. It’s likely to include some presence at a conference where I have been asked to speak to share the work we do with colleagues from other places. It’s likely to include a presence at an experiment where my team is obtaining data as well. I am forgetting a lot of stuff too.

Kaizen: My stereotypical view of a scientist is someone holed-up for great stretches of time in the lab—that is not an accurate description? You also have a lot of travel?

Drake: In order to accomplish those things, there is a great deal of travel. Across science you find that the leaders in a given field end up traveling a lot. There are people who fit the stereotype of the white lab coat holed-up in a room, but they are the minority. That also reflects the fact that much of the science done now is team-oriented and involves the use of large facilities, and that creates a requirement for going to the facility and a requirement for, in various ways, collaborating and that includes the need to physically get together at times.

Kaizen: How do you keep yourself productive when you have to shift focus so many times?

Drake: I am, in that sense, perhaps fortunate that I am not a person who works all that well sitting in an office. And correspondingly, I don’t need to be sitting in an office to work well. I work well in coffee shops and that coffee shop can exist anywhere. I work well on airplanes.

Kaizen: Travel is big time-sink for many people. Being able to work in airport lounges and on planes—is this something that came naturally to you or is it something you worked at?

Drake: I would say it came naturally. Among the many different tasks that I need to perform, there are a large number that don’t require a lot of preparation to focus—in which I can pick up the relevant documents or pull them up on my computer and within a few minutes be working. So all I need is concentration on the issue for that short amount of time. There are some things I do that require a much longer period of focus in order to make significant progress on them. And for those things, I need to create the time and space for that focus. When there is a major proposal to be written, I will leave Ann Arbor and come up to Gaylord, Michigan and spend two or three days focusing on that proposal. Even in the midst of travel there will be times when I carve out a day that I spend in my hotel room or in coffee shops, not talking to anyone, but enabling me to have the hours of time needed.

Kaizen: How important still is the physical contact and the physical travel in this day of the Internet and video conferencing?

Drake: It remains significantly important. It remains the case that communication is much more effective in person than it is even on Skype. In particular, if you don’t know someone very well, it becomes a bigger difference, and the difference in quality of communication from email to Skype to in person is much bigger with people you don’t know very well. This gets to be an even larger difference if you are not from the same culture. Email, in particular, can be treacherous for people who are not native speakers of the same language or even who just don’t know each other very well. The other element is that if you have a large number of people who need to be involved in a discussion, then email is a fairly clunky way to get that done and the video methods are, likewise, fairly clunky. If you have ten people involved in something, it is a lot more effective to get them into a room than it is to have them collect in any other available medium.

Kaizen: So the quality of the communication is significantly high enough to make the extra travel, cost, and time worth it?

Drake: Yeah. Another element is that when you’re co-located somewhere without a whole lot else going on, it’s a lot easier to iterate the communication. So next week I’ll be in southern France for one of the major conferences in my field, and we have a couple of meetings scheduled related to large efforts at which we’ll have ten or more people in each case. In addition, we’ll all be comparatively undistracted by other things, and this will lead to the opportunity, beyond the meeting itself, for a sequence of interactions during a period of time that is relatively free from things that prevent us from thinking about and drawing good conclusions about the project we are trying to put together.

Kaizen: As the director of your center, you’re also a manager of people, and people management is a whole other skill set. Did the managing skill set came naturally to you, or were there special challenges, things you had to learn and to work at?

Drake: I’d say it came fairly naturally to me. One of the funny things about leading a university center is that this job is not a full-time management job. If you spend all the time on management, you could do the management better; if you spent all the time on teaching, your courses would be better. So, there is an issue of balancing many competing demands and one needs to do everything well and at the level that meets whatever the relevant standards are, but without over-investing. There are some unique aspects to that in the management context that one can’t just dive in and work the management issues or, in fact, any other issues without paying attention to the rest of the context. In terms of working with people, I think the secret to leadership is to distribute the credit and take the blame.

Kaizen: That’s a good phrase.

Drake: Distribute the credit and take the blame. If things are going well, it’s because your people did that somehow; and if they’re going badly, it’s your fault. The buck stops with you. And if you ever catch yourself blaming one of your people to someone outside, you’re probably screwing up.

Kaizen: That’s good advice. A hard pill to swallow, in many cases.

Going back to your education and the way science works now: Top scientists have to get grants and manage people as well as doing the science. Could your science education have better prepared you for the reality of a scientific career? It strikes me that you had a straightforward scientific career, but there were other things you picked up along the way as a matter of necessity.

Drake: That is an accurate statement. One hears this kind of question and a lot of advocacy about various things that would well be added to an education. I am nervous about this, because it’s really hard to get educated to the doctoral level in a quantitative science. It takes a very deep commitment to learning fundamentals and working with them and accomplishing something that becomes a thesis. If you add a whole bunch of training in other things that an individual may or may not turn out to need, are you going to make him spend two more years in school?

Also, many students come right out of undergrad school into grad school. They don’t bring any life experience to bear on the lessons in, say, leading people or dealing with money.

So I am sure there are things that can be done better and things that would be good to add, but I’d start with more emphasis on writing at the undergraduate level.

Kaizen: So, given the rigors of getting oneself to the highest level in science, there is not really time or mental space for adding things to the curriculum. Then it’s best to keep the current focus and those who become directors of center, write grants, and manage people will pick up those skills as needed when they get into their careers?

Drake: I think that would be preferable to trying to subject everybody to training in all of those things before they’ve started to have the relevant experiences or the needs.

I remember I had a colleague who was a department chair, and he had had a long experience in one of the agencies that funds research and so a lot of experience in management circles broadly written. He eventually came to the university, brought in as a department chair, and he was really surprised when he started going to department chair meetings and the new department chairs would come in carrying management theory books. Management theory books can do you some good, but they can get you in a lot of trouble too. You learn a lot more by looking for limited amounts of good advice and reflecting on your mistakes.

Kaizen: Is management in the sciences different if you are managing who are strongly interested in the science? You’re managing other professors and graduate students who have a shared set of skills and commitments. So with good will most management issues get sorted out. I’m wondering if management scientists who love science is different from, say, managing in a factory where many people are there just because it’s a job?

Drake: I think management in science is different than management in a factory. One has many common issues because one is working with teams of people and the people interactions are one of the things that become a problem. But in the sciences and other creative fields, one is working with people whose value comes from a degree of independent professional creativity and one must respect the need for those people to be going directions that they understand to be important and to go off and make some of their own mistakes. So this kind of management is often described as herding cats, and that is a very realistic metaphor. It feels like that a lot. In science terms, we talk about a sphere as having a four-pi steradians of angular space, so the joke in scientific management is that if you can keep your people working in two-pi steradians—you want to go straight ahead and you can keep them so they are not taking you backwards—you are doing pretty well.

Kaizen: Do you have any advice about how young scientists should learn the grant-writing ropes?

Drake: At times I involve my students in reviewing material for grant applications. Writing grant applications is a very nuanced activity. One has a sponsor who has written a request for proposals and one needs to address the issues of interest there. One will have a review process in which certain individuals are judging the proposal, and one needs to write a proposal that will prove effective in that review process and that has bunch of dimensions to it.

So grant-writing is something that is not simple to teach. One isn’t going to do a set of lectures to create learning that’s relevant to grant application writing. One could create an experiential course in which people were given calls for proposals, asked to write proposals, and given feedback, and that wouldn’t be a bad thing to do. But there is a lot of thinking involved in doing it successfully, and there is a lot of context in that what works in one subfield with one sponsor may not work with another.

Kaizen: So it really has to be learned from the ground up? And there are a lot of granular issues depending on where you are?

Drake: Yes. I see it as challenging to generalize. As an example, there are some programs and agencies in which the agency involved believes that the long-term supply of manpower for the area they are responsible for is a significant issue. Those agencies will be very interested in funding programs that train grad students who can be hired into their field. There are other areas where the agency believes they are well-staffed and they have a mission for the country to produce certain scientific results, but they don’t need to do a lot of training of grad students. Those agencies will be much more receptive to projects that fund full-time scientists preferentially over grad students. So the way you put together projects and grants is very different in those two cases.

Kaizen: Your center has its own internal people issues, social dynamics, and institutional arrangements. But your center is interdisciplinary with several departments that are part of the university as a whole and, typically, universities have their own brand of politics. Does the broader University of Michigan system affect how you do things at your center?

Drake: It has significant effects on how we put together projects like this. My center actually has eight departments involved—faculty from eight departments from two colleges from Michigan, in addition to people from two other universities. So we have procedures for putting things together, and they’re relatively effective at enabling us to put together large interdisciplinary projects quickly and effectively.

This is one of the areas where the top research universities distinguish themselves from many of the others. When I compare what we do and what my colleagues do at many of the lower-ranked universities, they face purely bureaucratic obstacles I don’t face. The ability of a top research university to enable its people to go after research opportunities is a key competitive edge. In addition, Michigan specifically has a very interdisciplinary culture. Many of the incentives that are inherent to the university structure work against that. They work toward encouraging compartmentalization.

Kaizen: Not Michigan but at universities in general?

Drake: Generally, in universities professors are promoted based on their prominence within the field that they work in, and that creates a tendency for people to need and want to be islands and to not work with other professors at that institution. So managing to respect that need while also having successful interdisciplinary projects is a challenge. It happens that the culture at Michigan is quite good at that, and it is one of the things that I found very attractive when I considered moving here.

Kaizen: What incentives or structures does Michigan have in place to encourage that?

Drake: What is interesting is that there are relatively few incentives. There is a willingness to look deeper at the nature of accomplishments that might be a promotion case by one of the faculty members and seeking the unique impact of that individual in the context of a joint project. In large measure, this is something that reflects a historical culture rather than institutional structures.

Kaizen: It’s more soft culture than formalized rules and procedures?

Drake: Yes.

Kaizen: The University of Michigan is a state institution that relies on state funding. Does that affect your center’s work? Or are you independent of that—raising your own outside funds?

Drake: The University of Michigan is often described by analysts as a semi-private university. In terms of the total funding of the institution, the state support is well under ten percent. And that state support is very much focused on providing tuition relief for in-state undergraduate students; although it is not budgeted that way, that’s the nature of the focus. So, indeed, issues of state support have essentially no bearing on our work.

Kaizen: You’ve also worked at non-academic research labs, like Lawrence Livermore. Are there significant differences between those two institution types?

Drake: Enormously significant differences. The large labs can field coordinated efforts to work big problems that a university could not hope to engage in. But in addition to being large, long-term institutions, they grow bureaucracies that significantly reduce their productivity.

Kaizen: But academic institutions often have large bureaucracies.

Drake: Universities have bureaucracies as well. But there is a little closer connection between the fact that at the universities, the money comes in through effective teaching and through effective grant writing, so the need of the faculty to produce in those areas is more widely understood. Inside the big labs, the money comes through much less direct means and the bureaucracy tends to feel much freer to occupy all the time of the people and tends to expect to be the first priority no matter what.

Kaizen: So have the research universities been more successful at generating results than the labs?

Drake: Yes, on a per dollar basis, definitely. But the labs can do some big things that the universities can’t. I mean, it is so bad right now that—in response to bad publicity—some of the big labs are now run on contracts through which the only explicit measures for which the lab gets paid are through compliance with bureaucratic requirements. The productivity of the institution is not involved at all in deciding whether they get paid. Having said that, these big labs remain the best places for many scientists to spend some of their careers and for some scientists to spend all of their careers. Despite the bureaucratic burdens, there is a lot of ability to do work one enjoys without, for example, having to personally find the funds to support it.

Kaizen: The way these labs get paid sounds absurd.

Drake: It is absurd.

Kaizen: On funding issues and strings attached—any funding source can come with strings attached. In science, we’re interested in pursuing new knowledge, we’re interested in objectivity and the pursuit of truth. But funding sources can exert pressure: government funding can come with political strings attached, and corporate or private funding can come with economic strings attached. Are those real concerns in your experience?

Drake: I think certainly those concerns can be real, depending on the practices of the individuals in government or industry providing the funds, and to some extent depending on what a given university is willing to accept. The University of Michigan, for example, is willing to accept pre-publication reviews, but not the requirement of making changes in the papers reviewed. So there may be a sponsor who wants to review before something is published, and we will accept grants and contracts that require that.

Kaizen: “Review” simply means to be apprised?

Drake: Yes, to be apprised. If the sponsor desires any changes in the publication, then that is required to be reviewed at a very high level in the university administration with the explicit intention of preventing the sponsor from influencing the content and the output of the research of and protecting the professor from having to stand up to the sponsor.

Kaizen: Whether that funding is coming from private or public sources?

Drake: We treat all sources the same. Now, in my own personal experience, I have not had any issues of this type with my own sponsors.

Kaizen: Do you think that institutional mechanism works—draw a line in the sand and no participation beyond that?

Drake: I think that’s a mechanism that works. It would also work to only expect funding that enabled free publication without any requirement for review.

Kaizen: Aside from possible financial or political pressure, distortion can also enter science at the individual level. People have goals—for example, wanting fame—or they can have various sources of cognitive bias. Are those regular problems, or do most scientists’ commitment to truth and personal integrity keep them focused properly?

Drake: I believe that most scientists have a personal commitment to integrity. You mentioned two types of bias—things driven, let’s say, by a desire for fame. It’s a small minority of people—and the people in the field know who they are—who exaggerate the importance of their results to try to be famous. The ultimate limit of that is the people who cheat to try to be famous. And we see cases of that backfiring every year. This is a tiny fraction of the individuals.

Cognitive bias is a harder thing, because science is really hard. You are trying to put together incomplete information to draw conclusions that help you develop new knowledge. And that kind of process has a significant emotional component, when one asks, “Well, is there something I haven’t thought of?” And you don’t get at “the thing I haven’t thought of” by coming up with a conscious list of all five thousand things that have a bearing on the problem you’re working on. You rely on a feeling when your subconscious integrates your knowledge and says, “Oh, there’s something that is not quite right. It’s not complete.” And if you bring some kind of a bias to your work, it interferes with those feelings. That’s why I’m never very eager to see a conclusion from someone about a scientific point if I think they know what they want to conclude about that point in advance, because I believe it truly interferes with cognitive functioning to have that bias of desiring a particular outcome.

Kaizen: So inside of the head of the scientist, when you are having this feeling that something doesn’t fit, that’s where your personal commitment is going to be a decisive issue. Do you attend to that feeling and work at figuring out what your doubts are? Or do you suppress it?

Drake: I think there’s the personal commitment, and I also believe that that feeling is an integration of a lot of material; and if part of that material is how you want the outcome to be, you’re not going to get an accurate computation from that subconscious computer.

Kaizen: Other checks, aside from one’s personal ethics, are engaging in discussions with other scientists, brainstorming and bouncing ideas, where they will put the hard questions to you. I assume a lot of that happens. And then formal peer review for papers.

Drake: Yes. Brainstorming interactions are more useful for developing novel ideas to go in some direction. But in the process of presenting one’s results at conferences—and this is another case where being there in person really makes a difference in the quality of the interaction—one gets a chance to interact with colleagues about issues that may affect the validity of the claims one would like to make about some new result. Beyond that, there is the formal peer review process when one publishes, which gives a limited number of individuals the opportunity to identify weaknesses in the work.

Kaizen: Do you think—if we do some sociology of science, so to speak—that most scientists have a strong commitment to truth and a personal commitment to scientific integrity, and that those combined with social mechanisms of publicly presenting at conferences and formal peer review—means that you have a strong confidence institutionally in what comes out as a scientific product?

Drake: I have a strong confidence that it represents a best effort to work with and to draw conclusions from information that was obtained by sound methods. Now, a lot of times we’re wrong. One of the old jokes is, “If it were right, it would be engineering.” And it’s because the pieces of knowledge are incomplete, so you put the pieces together and say, “Oh, I think it’s a picture of a fiddler.” And you get some more pieces and it turns into a picture of an organ grinder with a monkey on his back. This is the reality of creating new knowledge—that one needs to learn some things, try to reason about what they mean, and put that into the public conversation by means of publishing and presenting. Doing this creates a situation where other people can apply other methods to similar systems and combine that with what you have published, and they may conclude that you’re completely wrong in the conclusions that you drew or that in some way you had a wrong method. But that’s fine. If you were applying methods in the way that it is understood that they should be applied at the time that you do the work, and if you’re reasoning well in drawing conclusions from them, then even if in the end you are wrong, because that method is misused or the reasoning is wrong because of some factor that no one knows should be included, that’s perfectly fine. The job of a scientist is not to put eternal truth in print the first time. The job of the scientist is to take the tools of the discipline and use them in ways that contribute to advancing knowledge. And that includes a lot of mistakes along the way, including mistakes in print.

Kaizen: So the emphasis is on the process rather than the finished product as the goal each time?

Drake: Yes, absolutely.

Kaizen: You do basic research with an eye to engineering applications. In the history of science there has been what I think of as a snobbish divide between pure and applied science—theoretical versus applied math, theoretical physics versus applied. Is that still operative, or has it declined?

Drake: I’m sure one can find particular institutions where it lives on in some department or another, but I would say on the whole, this has declined. What one tends to see now is a distinction between discovery-driven research and application-driven research. Where one may do some research because one is curious, and the reasons are unimportant as to why one is curious what the outcome is—that is described as discovery-driven research. Then there is research you’re doing that has a particular application as its focus. I believe that this is a legitimate distinction.

Kaizen: Is the distinction purely psychological in terms of the scientists’ motivation?

Drake: Yes, and it’s also very much reflected in the nature of an opportunity to provide funding. The discovery-driven research is judged by its potential to create significant new knowledge in some discipline. And application-driven research is judged by its potential to advance the progress towards some specific goal, like making fusion with lasers work.

Kaizen: There is an order of priority issue here also. In discovery science, you’re coming up with new knowledge and then applications may or may not happen right down the road. In the other case, you have the applications in mind and you’re backing into the pure science of a solved problem.

Drake: Absolutely.

Kaizen: To return to your experience as professor. You work at a highly-regarded university, so you teach some of the best students in the country. Do they arrive at Michigan as scientifically well-educated—whatever you think freshman-level science should be?

Drake: Absolutely not. Our undergraduates are all very, very smart kids—they test very well. And that is how they get in. But many of them have gotten through high school by memorizing, regurgitating, and forgetting, which leaves them unprepared to deal with structured, conceptual knowledge. That is a real knock on high school education. A lot of them who either come from inner cities or rural areas have been in high schools where they had to do no work whatsoever and got great grades because they are natively smart and did well on tests. But they haven’t learned how to function; they haven’t learned how to apply themselves in a class or, many times, in any kind of social environment, and do sustained work over time to meet a goal. These students often suffer very badly in the early terms at Michigan, because they just don’t have the life-skills they need in order to succeed in college. And then we’ll have the kids from the wealthy suburbs who come in and they have the life-skills, because they got them in their private high schools, but if they didn’t learn to deal with knowledge in a way that leads to retention, then they are also ill-prepared for learning science in college, and they often don’t do well.

Kaizen: Do you have a longitudinal sense here? Because it is a common complaint across the generations for professors to say that undergrads are unprepared. Professors in the 1990s, 1980s, 1970s, and so on, were saying the same thing.

Drake: I haven’t got thirty years in as a professor. So I don’t have that long of a longitudinal baseline. And my involvement is more strongly with grad students and with undergrads who seek out my research program to do research with us. But public education in the U.S. hasn’t changed all that much: it was bad forty years ago and it’s still bad.

Kaizen: To switch to the graduate students. Do they arrive adequately prepared, by whatever appropriate standard?

Drake: Yes. On the whole, the graduate students are arriving well-prepared. And they’ve prepared themselves through applying themselves, through effective learning, and through obtaining research experience as an undergrad.

Kaizen: They may started college behind where they should have been as freshmen, but they worked hard and caught up?

Drake: Yes. In addition, at any given educational level, there are students who are smart enough that they are not particularly bothered by accomplishing what’s asked of them. The people who end up in grad school in the sciences are among a very rarified group. They are a small fraction of the starting undergrad population, which is a smaller—tiny—fraction of the high school population, in terms of the people who come to Michigan. So, I’m frankly unsure—if you take a person who, at the age of 18, has never really learned to think, they just know how to memorize and regurgitate—I’m not sure that undergrad school can fix that. I’m not sure that those people ever get to grad school. Or, if they’re barely smart enough to do that, they are unlikely to succeed at a doctoral program.

Kaizen: So you are pointing to pre-college as the decisive educational time.

Drake: Yes.

Kaizen: How about the math component? It is one thing to be interested in biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, and so on, and they all have a math component. But there are significant drop-offs, particularly in middle school and just after middle school—a large number of students fall off the cliff when it comes to mathematics. Do you have any thoughts about the math component for science students?

Drake: I think at Michigan, it depends what they study. The students in engineering and the hard sciences come in with decent math skills. In that area, more is better. And it’s tragic that the mathematics education allows so many people to fall off the table in middle school or high school. Because the key to a very wide range of technical careers, increasingly in even things like biology, that were formerly thought to be non-mathematical—the key is math skills as a basis for further work.

Kaizen: To play the devil’s advocate: One argument is that we live in a complicated, division-of-labor society, so most people don’t need to learn much science or math, because people like you and the engineers will look after the science and math knowledge and the rest can just focus on their side of the division-of-labor.

Drake: There’s a famous quote from Thomas Jefferson along the lines of: “Only the educational awareness of the population protects one from the government in the long-run.” I didn’t quote him accurately there, but in the spirit Jefferson I think only broad education and awareness and thoughtfulness in the population is what protects one from the encroachment of government in the long-term. I think these things are very important from that point of view.

Kaizen: You mean that to have a liberal society, everyone needs that broad education, including math and science?

Drake: I firmly believe that.

Kaizen: Is part of your argument that we live in a highly scientific and technological society, so everybody should have some understanding of how those systems work? Or is it that we live in a democratic political system, and that many political decisions involve scientific and technical issues, so when people are going to vote on things like global warming or whatever, that requires science education?

Drake: I would say the second, absolutely. The first is desirable. We do live in a scientific and technological society, so it is desirable for people to understand the things that are significant for the society. But the second point you made, that politically we have arguments and we make decisions that hinge on scientific and technological issues.  That means it’s critical for the population to be well-educated in those areas to sustain a free and liberal society.

Kaizen: That makes it doubly a tragedy for young people who fall off the education cliff, so to speak. Certain career options are closed-off to them, and they aren’t going to be informed as citizens in the kind of society we live in.

In a broader historical context, for the last century or so, there have been a number of scientific powerhouse nations. Arguably the United States has been the leading powerhouse scientific nation in the world over the last century. But when one goes further back in history, there is an interesting trend. During the early Renaissance, Italy was the dominant scientific nation, but it declined. Then the Dutch came on strong in the 1600s and then declined. The English and the French became the great powers in the 1700s, Germany came on strong in the 1800s, and then the USA in the 1900s. Is the USA going to be strong in the 21st century? Or do you see signs of decline, as has happened to other scientifically powerhouse nations?

Drake: Decline very much would not surprise me. But I don’t think it’s guaranteed. The argument for decline is that we are not properly focused nationally. The way that we have decided to fund fundamental science nationally is primarily through federal support, but we are not focused nationally on sustaining American leadership in important areas of science. And we do not follow through in many ways—not just flow of money—but also regulations and other things. We do not follow through in the ways that we would need to assure that we will retain the lead in scientific areas.

A second part of the argument is the economic one. All federal discretionary spending is now a third of the budget, and entitlements are two-thirds. It’s not clear what the run-out of that is going to be—that is, how poor and dumb the country has to get before we fix that problem.

Kaizen: Fixing that problem is necessary for the health of scientific funding across generations?

Drake: Yes.

Kaizen: To go back to the first issue of area focus: What areas of science do you think that we are not focusing on or following through on appropriately?

Drake: This is very spotty, because the process by which funding gets provided nationally is political and involves the interactions of many individuals in both the agencies and Congress. The results that come out of that process are sausage-making. It’s random.

Kaizen: And you don’t want to see the inside of the process.

Drake: Well, no. And you can’t predict whether any given a slice of sausage is mostly meat or mostly fat or chunks of bone.

Kaizen: So if federal funding is a lion’s share of the overall funding, and politics is a sausage-making process, then we get erratic results?

Drake: Exactly. It’s not consistent across time and it’s not consistent across disciplines. If you survey any given discipline, you’ll find holes where we are not sustaining our excellence.

Kaizen: Do you have examples of the sausage-making in areas you are familiar with?

Drake: There is an area of research to develop technologies one needs to do power plants using lasers, and also a variety of other things using lasers, called high-average power lasers. We had a national program aimed at developing high-average power lasers—something that should be part of the overall national scientific effort. But it so happened that that program was funded by earmarks, and in the first Obama budget, the earmarks all got cut, which one would say is a good thing. But since this part of the work we should be doing nationally was funded by earmarks, that program got killed and remains dead to this day. That is an example of the accidental flow of events leading to a result that anyone with a well-rounded overview would conclude as unreasonable.

It’s also true that, for historical reasons, we’ve been pursuing fundamental research aimed at making fusion energy with magnetic bottles, yet we’ve not been doing research aimed at fusion energy using lasers. We’ve done research with defense motivations toward obtaining fusion with lasers, but we haven’t had the collateral, corresponding program aimed at fusion energy. There has been a little bit of research in a sporadic fashion—mainly, in my view, following turf wars among different agencies. The agency funding the laser work didn’t think energy was part of its portfolio and the part of the agency funding energy work didn’t think that laser stuff was part of its portfolio,  so nobody did it. Two examples of the sausage-making.

Kaizen: That is to focus on the negative. Are there things on the positive side of the ledger? Is science in the United States overall healthy and strong? Will it be so in the foreseeable future?

Drake: On the positive side of the ledger is the entrepreneurial structure of our scientific effort. We have a system in which a wide range of people, both in universities and laboratories in industry, are in a position to seek support by whatever method they can invent, and to create new science and new inventions by whatever means they can. That degree of inherent flexibility in the U.S. system is not present in any other country.

Also, the education that supports innovative thinking is present here and in Europe, but not in Asia. These are real advantages that will help the United States overcome its weaknesses.

Will we be on top, so to speak, at the end of the 21st century? I have no idea, but I could see it going either way, depending on whether our strengths or our weaknesses turn out to dominate and depending on how well the rest of the world learns and improves the way they handle science to better enable scientific innovation.

Kaizen: Relatively, you think we have some strengths that other countries don’t have?

Drake: We have strengths that other countries don’t have. Europe does much better than we do at taking a broad overview of a field and providing some kind of support, but at the same time, the weakness that goes with that is that certain areas of research tend to become entrenched and you have a harder time making room for new ones.

Kaizen: What about Asia—China, Japan, India?

Drake: Asia, and especially China, has countries that are trying very hard to broaden their scientific efforts. They are putting a lot of money into facilities and research efforts. If the creative and innovative aspects of science are successfully cultivated in Asia, then I think Asia would clearly overtake the rest of the world during this next century.

Kaizen: Coming back to you, personally. You are still relatively young—late 50’s?

Drake: I’m almost 57.

Kaizen: What are your plans for the next several years?

Drake: For the next several years, I expect to continue leading research projects, continue educating grad students, and, in general, fulfilling a range of activities that a professor fulfills.

Kaizen: The center you are directing will be up for a grant renewal in a few years.

Drake: Another year and a half.

Kaizen: So, depending on how that goes …

Drake: So that center will either continue or not. I lead another center that is much smaller, but which incorporates projects from a number of sponsors, and that center will continue or not, it will grow or shrink. This is the ebb and flow of research, sponsor-funded research.

Kaizen: The work side of your life is very full. What do you like to do outside of your work life?

Drake: I’m a life-long athlete, by inclination. And at my age, it’s a good thing to keep exercising for my health as well. So I’m very devoted to my various sporting activities. My favorite activity is a kind of cross-country called skate-skiing, in which one propels oneself by motions much like one uses on ice skates. It’s very intensely aerobic.

Kaizen: Does it take a shorter ski?

Drake: Not particularly a shorter ski. It’s structured differently so that it responds to the skating motion well. My joints don’t respond well to running, so I’m not a runner. But the most intense aerobic exercise I get comes from skate-skiing. In the spring, summer, and fall, I row in a rowing shell and spend some time in a weight room and some time on a treadmill, but I prefer to do my exercise outside when I can. I’ve been working on learning rollerblading as a shoulder season sport.

Kaizen: You’ve been a professional scientist now for many decades. What stands out as having been the most rewarding thing to you about your career in science?

Drake: I found many rewards, so it is hard to say that one thing is a “most rewarding” thing. There have been moments in my career when I realized I had discovered something significant, something that would have an impact among my colleagues in my field, and those are rewarding moments—they are high points. In addition, the process of being engaged in a problem and trying to understand it and making progress in figuring it out remains rewarding to me to this day. In another context, watching the graduate students who work with me develop from smart bachelor’s degree people into functioning, independent scientists is a deeply rewarding process. And there is a broad range of other rewards.

Kaizen: To transition from being a young person interested in science to being a fully independent scientist, many things have to come together. One has to have smarts, and one has to have the courage to ask sometimes-uncomfortable questions. Also perseverance, and being able to fail and to bounce back from that.

Drake: Science is mostly about failing. You fail most of the time. You need to have a lot of ideas that fail to have the good one. There was an excellent article a couple of years ago. In class, students are taught to expect to succeed; there are expected to get all of the homework right, to try to get all the problems on the test right. And then as soon as you start learning research, it’s all about failure. You’re failing all the time. You feel stupid a lot. And it’s only the people who can really embrace that and who find the challenge of failing well enough to eventually succeed—they’re the ones who flourish in research.

Kaizen: Do you have advice about how to cultivate that “celebration of” failure or “embracing” failure or “coping with” failure? I’m not sure what the right word would be.

Drake: “Coping” is a bad word, because if you’re there, you’re far from the right place. It’s embracing failure, embracing good failure. Any idea you have that doesn’t pan out is a success: you’ve learned something that didn’t work. You’ve narrowed the range of possibilities for what will work. And it’s a key thing you see in successful scientists and people who are good leaders of scientists as well. You find people who can do that in their own science—but put them in a leadership position and they’re insecure about it and think they have to pretend that everything succeeds all the time when it doesn’t. There are really effective team leaders who I have had the pleasure of working for who will stand up and say, “Ah, I’ve found a problem today! What a great day.” Because, now we can solve it. And we can go find the next one. We keep doing that and eventually what we’re trying to do is going to work.

For young people, though—you asked about advice for young people—the best way to both explore and prepare for a career in science is to get involved in research. At many, many schools, pretty much any liberal arts college or any research university, there are numerous opportunities to get involved in research with professors; and if you’re at a school where you don’t have those opportunities, there are national programs that will pay you to go for the summer to various kinds of institutions to do research. That is extremely important for your intellectual development and your preparation to be an effective scientist in the long run.

Kaizen: Again looking back to your education, is there anything you think could have been done better to prepare you for the kind of career you’ve had?

Drake: You know, I’m sure there are, but there is something I don’t like about that kind of question. You’ve asked several of that kind of question. I don’t like the premise that the educational environment has to create the full mosaic that is the successful person. And if there is anything the successful person needs, the educational environment has to have it there or somehow that isn’t adequate preparation. The person creates the outcome.

So to the students who read this: You are responsible for what happens. It’s not whatever idiots designed the educational program you’re in. It is you who has to learn what needs to be learned and accomplish what needs to be accomplished and reach the goal you set for yourself. Could people do a better job of supporting you? Sure, but that will always be true and it doesn’t matter. You need to be or become the kind of person who will succeed because you pursue your own goals persistently, if you wish—ruthlessly.

Kaizen: That’s excellently put. I don’t want to suggest that a student is a passive vehicle through which educational forces work. So, if I were to tailor the question precisely: Are there things that you now know are useful to you as a scientist and, knowing that, wish you had known about earlier so that you could have worked on them earlier? Or is it always going to be an individualized process of trial and error and discovery and when you find out you need to learn something, you just make a point of learning it?

Drake: I think it is difficult to formalize many of the elements of success in nice little pieces. Learn to work hard at a young age. Get the math. Learn to speak and write. These things can help a career move forward and one finds often, if not nearly all the time, the people who do manage succeeding do get those elements early.

Kaizen: Another question, and you may not like how it’s formulated. Our Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship focuses on entrepreneurship as well as character. In science, many emerging areas of research have funding that is driven by entrepreneurial sub-cultures—biotech, energy, computing. Do you think it’s worthwhile for science majors to take courses in business or at least have their attention raised to the importance of the business side of science?

Drake: I think that is worthwhile. Young people don’t have anywhere, except perhaps from television shows, to get any information about what’s really involved in science in the world. And, of course, the television shows are usually portraying things that aren’t accurate. So I think that there would be value in a seminar or short course that was “Science in the World,” discussing the role of science and how it works across a very wide range of contexts, including entrepreneurial cultures, but not limited to that. Really working with actual examples from news stories or professional magazines and with speakers coming in to really find what are the different kinds of things that are involved in actually being a scientist. What are these people doing who are running entrepreneurial companies that rely on science?

Kaizen: I liked what you said a while ago about taking charge and making yourself the kind of person you are going to be. Any closing advice for young people, particularly science students, about how to make their science career succeed?

Drake: I think there are several pieces of advice. Find things you really love and keep doing them. Make sure that you’re learning concepts and retaining knowledge, not memorizing and regurgitating. Get the math.

Kaizen: Math is your friend.

Drake: At the undergraduate level, it’s finding things you love and working hard. That is key. When you get a little further, it’s not being afraid to take chances. I don’t think that is so important as an undergrad, but it makes a difference at the graduate level and as your career proceeds after the doctorate: being willing to take chances is a big element.

The people who are strongly successful are the ones who are entrepreneurial with their careers. Whether they are working in an entrepreneurial business or not—they are entrepreneurial in the way that they pursue their careers—they’re not afraid to take chances.

© 2013 Stephen R. C. Hicks. All rights reserved.

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One Response to “Interview with Paul Drake”

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