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Welcome to another interview from EuCAP 2019 in Krakow. This time, with professor Andrea Neto from TU Delft, Netherlands, on how to bypass the academic career development and still become a professor, quantum computers, and more. Listen to the recording or read the transcript.
Can you please introduce yourself first?
My name is Andrea Neto, I am the head of terahertz sensing group of microelectronics department at TU Delft in the Netherlands, and we do research on very high-frequency systems, from zero to five hundred gigahertz and we do a significant amount of work for companies at frequencies below 30 GHz, some even at 10 GHz. Our group is comprised of 25 people and we are very strong in high-frequency antennas. I think we are the only terahertz group at this conference.
Can you tell us about your professional journey?
I did my Ph.D. in Sienna, Italy, but before that, I worked for one year in the European Space Agency (ESA). There I realized that most people with a career had a Ph.D. and that the people from the university in Sienna where I studied were extremely knowledgeable. So, I decided to go back to Sienna to do a Ph.D. which was financed by the ESA. After the Ph.D. they hired me for a couple of years to continue as a postdoc. After that, I moved to the US where I worked for almost three years in Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA. Then I decided that the United States was not the country I want to live in. I went back to the Netherlands to TNO, which is a Dutch national research center where I worked for almost ten years as an antenna scientist. When I was about to leave the country, I received a phone call from the dean of TU Delft who asked if I wanted a professor position. So, I had a research career and then went directly to become a professor without going through the standard academic career path.
Would you say it was not your goal to become a professor?
My father was a university professor, so I saw the risks of doing purely theoretical work. He was working in quantum mechanics – very abstract field. I always saw him being isolated – finding very few people to communicate and collaborate with, and I thought it was because he had only academic track record. I was fascinated with research, but I wanted to do something more in contact with reality. I always wanted to go to university because even when I was in research, I kept on publishing and gravitated towards the most difficult topics. I just wanted to do something that also had applications.
You wanted to avoid ending up being in your ‘research bubble’, right?
That was the potential my father had and fell entirely into. For engineers, it is a bit more difficult so it is less common, but if you work in some field for long enough, you will become the best at it because you will define your field so small that you are the only one in it. Therefore, most of the researchers become fond of themselves because they are the best in their field. It is almost impossible not to become the best in your field if you define it. At some point, though, it must become useful to others. Otherwise, it is not even a field and should not exist in the first place.
How does your typical workday look like?
I arrive at work very early, earlier than anyone else and start working around seven o clock. Usually until 9:30 I do work non-related to any of the projects – a very long-term research work with no deadlines whatsoever and I do it always in the morning. From 9:30 onwards I have meetings to attend to or supervise students with their work. I sometimes do an hour of lecturing. Then again to students and eventually restart thinking about the important problems before going away.
What are the major challenges you face at work?
The main challenge when you become a head of something is that you are obliged to face the institution, in my case university where people are very knowledgeable but in fields which are not your own and you are always deciding how to best spend public money which is given to you. But you are continuously having different opinions compared to others on how to spend it. It might not be the most challenging, but it is the least satisfying part of the work. You cannot have a technical discussion with those colleagues, because they are all from different fields, so there is no one competent to make the decisions. You have time to figure out what is more important for the stakeholders, but someone might think more about students – where will they find the jobs tomorrow, etc. Someone might think about human nature or getting the university support from industry. Everyone has their ideas on what is important. We must make compromises, but we never manage to do the good ones.
Why is that the case?
Each of us has different objectives and we never agree on anything. Eventually, we do come to compromises but they are always to the lowest possible denominator, which is typically so low that it is embarrassing to even talk about.
So, strong personalities make collaboration very hard?
No, it is the structure. It is the fact that these people who are good researchers are asked to agree with one another, which makes no sense. We should just be given money and spend it in some domain. If the domain is not relevant, then we do not spend it anymore. There should be someone else, either the public, manager, whoever - to decide what is important. But, do not ask us to agree on something because we have nothing in common. I am of course talking about university – me and colleagues working on low-frequency electronics have nothing in common. This way to find a joint strategy is virtually impossible. Or us and signal processing people - we never agree on what a good strategy is.
Would you say that the university lacks a management layer?
Completely. When I was working at ESA, NASA, or TNO, they all had well-defined strategies and everyone had to adapt to that. Of course, those strategies could be wrong, but there was a strategy to follow. Once you follow a strategy, eventually you will find what is important. It is much easier to agree on what is important within boundaries than to define them. I think any line is okay as long as it is there. Once the people in a university must agree on this line, they never will. Essentially, no university has the line. The lines are always so generic that it is almost embarrassing.
In the United States as well?
The way I knew them fifteen years ago, they were guided by NASA or military funding, but now they are a complete disaster.
They do not have any research whatsoever compared to Europe. When I went to a conference 25 years ago, we went around the lectures of all the important people who knew a lot… but now, the equivalent conferences on antennas and propagation are much weaker compared to the conference we are attending now (EuCAP). This is not because the EuCAP has improved, but because Americans have not substituted the key researchers in many important areas for almost 20 to 30 years. They simply stopped financing real research.
Yet American researchers and universities are on the top of the statistics of scientific merit.
Yes, but they were much more on the top. When my father went to the United States, in 1968 there was a universe of difference between the US and Europe. When I went, the ESA and NASA were sort of competing. Now we do much better things here. There is no equivalent group in the United States compared to ours. The group I lead is much better than any other group in the US in our field. There is just no comparison. And this is not because we are so much better, but because they have become weak. Look at all the tech companies – Google, Amazon, they are not tech companies, they are software companies. There is nothing new emerging in the entire field of electronics since mobile phones operate at 5 GHz. When they were invented, they operated at 1 GHz. In thirty years, there have been only tiny improvements – basically no evolution. Now that the Chinese have finally copied all that Americans have done, that is it. And the Americans are the ones getting publicity. But Apple has not done anything except adding colors. The period when American labs were leading, there was Bell Labs. In a few years, Bell Labs invented the transistor, the laser, digital signal processing, everything – every year they were coming up with a revolutionary idea. There are books about it describing their structure…nothing similar exists for thirty years now. It is not that the Europeans have improved, but the Americans have collapsed.
What is the reason for this decline in your opinion?
I think they just became too rich. The Russians have been defeated in the cold war, after which they went from one economic bubble to another. People were becoming richer without doing anything and the only way to support that was to go from one economic bubble to another. And with every new bubble, the rich people become richer and do not feel the need to invest in the military which was the real reason why Bell Labs was so important. It had a monopoly for communication tolerated because it guaranteed the dominance of the United States. That is why the telecom bubble in 2000 was so important – it made evident that without a monopoly in telecommunications, all those companies cannot survive and they gave up on research.
Would you say that the money became the bottom line in this ‘industrialization’?
If telecom was industrialized, it would be great, but it became de-industrialized. I am one of the people that worked on modeling connected arrays which are now very famous. JJ Lee was the head of antenna research at Raytheon and he had a group of 250 antenna engineers – the biggest in the world. We were friends for about ten years when he asked me for help. We talked and he was very worried about what was happening in the United States. All the colleagues of his age were being replaced. All the know-how was going down the drain. All the leading companies – Boeing, Raytheon, were being emptied of know-how. All those gurus were not being replaced because they were expensive. When you do not need to beat the Russians anymore, there is no fear of being invaded, so they stopped paying them. The war between Huawei and Americans is ridiculous. Americans have lost it technologically because they stopped inventing technology a long time ago. Now they are trying to make up for it with politics.
What part of your work as a professor is a ‘necessary evil’ type of work? Did the position fill your expectations?
I expected it to be the way it is. About 30 percent of my work, or maybe 20, is not worth it. And it is growing now. At the beginning of my career, it was useful when I wanted to put myself out there, to be more known. But when you arrive at the point, when talking to people from different fields and you have nothing to contribute, it is because you do not have any specific knowledge to justify you being there. Honestly, most of the work above a certain level when you are responsible for 20, or 30 people, has nothing to do with how much you know. So why would I have to do it – I would just hire a manager from the outside because eventually, all the people that pursue a career will become managers if they take it too seriously.
Is it desirable to have a wide span of expertise for people who want to become professors?
For a professor, yes but it can be rather dramatic for the students. Professors who do not have deep knowledge, have nothing to teach. As a result, their students do not find jobs. University is only useful if it gives you specific know-how. There is no such thing as broad knowledge. Every field is extremely deep, extremely niche. There is nobody that knows a bit of everything until they are about seventy years old. At this point, based on your deep knowledge of let’s say five areas, that might be possible. In 25 years, you can cover five areas to a good depth.
Hundred years ago, the knowledge of many fields was not so deep, so it was easier to be expert in more areas early on. Do you think in the future Universities will lean towards a broader scope of curriculums?
I think they will specialize. Some universities will become strong at a topic and all their work will be focused on that domain. Other universities will become strong at something else. Then there will be general universities that focus on preparing students. The research universities are going to be forced to focus more and more, and those that will not manage to do it will disappear. I mean, they will not stop existing but will turn into teaching universities. It is very difficult for most of my colleagues to accept because it means that only a few will emerge. And Europe already has that mechanism in place, it is called European Research Council grants, invented to define where these groups are. We have three in my group and I know of no other research group that has more than one. The goal of these grants is to identify which groups are good and continue financing them. To make some groups coherently strong in their field. There is no way that a university will be strong at everything. They must choose a topic, and if they focus on it, they will become strong in it. This is what I think is going to happen in Europe at least.
Do you find the present publishing system working well?
I think it is working well for experienced people and bad for inexperienced ones. There are way too many journals, way more than people read. When people start studying and if they are not followed by someone who is an expert, they have no idea what to read. So, they end up reading a lot, and the majority of papers published are just re-iterations of something known for a long time. Thus, most students in the first years of their study are obliged to lose time if they work alone. In this sense, a great many publications do not help. For experienced people, it is not too bad, because they do not read papers that are not worth it and as a result of that do not lose time.
Do you provide your students with training on how to be efficient in these matters?
Of course. If you are in a group where people have experience in a given domain, you can explain them in a few days what they need to do – once they read the given papers, we discuss and they tell me what they think. You do not tell them to do a general review of a given domain. You go directly with the names you know, the relevant people. Guiding them through the process in this way will save the students several years, which is one of the advantages our students have compared to others. They are simply told what to study. We help them a lot when they are writing papers. Rarely they start writing papers alone. Almost always we tell them what the heading, abstract, or introduction should be, and they must fill in the gaps of the structure given. This is because, in the beginning, the student is not able to realize what is important and what is not. This is the main thing about publishing, getting accepted is when the reviewers realize that something is important. Most of the things a student does, because he/she does not know a lot, are not very important. He does them because he needs to learn to work with all the tools associated with the field. This way he spends most of his time with things that are not so important for publishing, but this transition needs to be helped by a professor or someone with more experience.
When I was starting grad school, I remember I would have appreciated a course on how to write and review.
How to write yes, it takes time to realize what is important and what is not. This guidance should be done one on one. We have courses at our university (TU Delft, Netherlands) to help students with writing papers or thesis, and all my students complain they are not useful. I have not gone through them and when I was young there were none. In any case, writing a paper is about figuring out what is important about your topic which takes much more experience than a student can acquire himself – he needs guidance. To get papers accepted, you need guidance.
Which journals do you publish in?
Essentially, IEEE Transactions - Antennas and Propagation, Terahertz Science and Technology, Microwave Theory and Techniques, sometimes IEE (institute of electrical engineers) – a British version of IEEE. Those are the only journals I publish in. I have collaborators from the fields of physics so sometimes you can find my name in the physics journals because they add my name, but I do not read those – always engineering journals.
Why only these journals?
I know what the standards for acceptance are. They go through a thorough review process, and I have almost always done like that. Most of my colleagues read those journals. I know that if a message is transmitted through one of those journals, it is very likely to be considered relevant.
When applying for funding, what about publications is important to the process?
I think the funding is about your name. Once you are my age (51) and people do not know me, there is no way I get funding from anyone. It is about your reputation and whether it is good or not. And journals go with it because if you have been around long enough and published, I do not think they look at what is my H-index or something like that. The application reviewer sees my name and remembers my work so let’s give him the money to do this as well. At the earlier stage of your career, it is more complex because people do not know you. That does not mean you are not valuable, they just do not know you. Conferences like this one is where your name is made. If you come to this conference (EuCAP) for 25 years in a row and give two or three talks, in my case our group has 11 papers this year, the chances that people have stumbled over my name is extreme. It would be absurd if they have not heard my name. When you are young, your supervisors and sponsors are what makes your career. Essentially, they define your entire career, anything else is fake.
Would you say that an isolated talent without a known supervisor has no chance to make it?
Exactly, and it is good this way. Because isolated talented researcher cannot have good ideas. Generally, this is not the way it works. There is 120 years of know-how in our field (electrical engineering) and if you must acquire it by yourself, it takes you fifty years. Before you come up with something new, you must work for 10 years, this is the reality. If you do not have the ten years of experience it is new to you as well. For the younger researchers, it is very clear what you need to do – find and follow the strong people. You go to conferences, see people and if you are intelligent, after a while, you will recognize those who make sense when they talk and ask them for help. This essentially means that you say – I want to work with you. They will say – I do not have funding. Then you go and look for it, write letters, ask them to take you under their wing and work for them for a few years. I worked for Stefano Maci, who is the organizer of the European School of Antennas, then Peter de Maagt – the head of the antenna section at European Space Agency. Then I worked for Peter Siegel, the head of the terahertz technology at Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I saw those people at conferences, and they were inspiring, and I wanted to work with them. So, I did, and they taught me all they knew. By the time I was 35, I got my first job, but I already knew a lot of things because they have been teaching me. Then I started to write proposals and there was a critical moment – because if you are not known enough to just win the proposals, it depends a little bit on how many papers you published. But it is a tiny part of your career. It mostly depends on the people you work with if they push you or not. If people talk about you well at a conference then most likely the reviewer is going to see: ‘ah this one must be a friend of him, so probably it is good work.’ The other alternative is when people have met you and saw that this guy did shitty work... it goes both ways. People hate being evaluated because it tells them something about themselves. You can only choose who will evaluate you, not whether you will be evaluated or not. Everyone evaluates you, your wife, girlfriend, everyone on a daily basis. Why would it not be like that in science? It looks unfair only if you are not in it, but it is the only possibility in my view. Because the alternative is to be evaluated by people who are not knowledgeable. And in this case people will always choose the wrong option, it is not a fifty-fifty chance. There is no way for you to show your know-how and be appreciated because you do not know how good you are. You might think you are good, but you have no idea. It is only when someone tells you that you are good and realize how good you are.
So, the way to go is to persist and keep bugging the people you want to work with?
Yes, they also helped me a lot. They not only push you but also teach you. If you work with people that only protect you, it is useless – you are not going to make a career. The people I admire – the ones I mentioned before – were extremely useful. If you talk with someone with 20 more years of experience than you for three hours, you make a jump of one month. Then you talk to another one and make another month jump. When you compare yourself to someone who has not had that help, it is almost like comparing someone going by car and bicycle. It is an incomparable advantage.
Not everyone is so determined like you. Generally, people in science are rather shy, or modest. What would you advise them?
The same thing. These knowledgeable people do not care whether you are outgoing or not, they want help with their research. When you tell them, I want to help you, it means you recognize their research as useful. Then, I am willing to dedicate my time, which I consider the most valuable thing I have, to work with you. You are giving them something, it is an exchange – you only have one youth. You are giving them a lot and they give you back a lot. What is the alternative? You do not have to be very outspoken to do that; you only need to be willing to work. There are so many possibilities – the funding opportunities are immense. When I was young, my Ph.D. program was paying 450 EUR a month. I had to have two Ph.D. salaries just to support myself. I had two contracts – one on lenses and one on arrays. Otherwise, I would not be able to afford to live by myself. Today, my students earn almost 2000 EUR a month – it is ridiculous. The advantages the young generations have now are very high. Their complaints about the difficulty to enter the academic world are ridiculous, frankly. I was working 13 hours a day and none of my students makes it even to 8. The expectations of young people have grown so much that they might perceive the system being unfair, even though it is not.
You do not try to publish in journals like Nature of Science, why is that?
Because they are too general. They try to publish things to be understood by many people and make sensational news. Whenever I manage to read the papers in Science and Nature, I understand it is nonsense. They have wrong concepts. I do not know how their review mechanism works and I do not even want to, I just know it is completely flawed. It is as bad as it gets.
This is quite contrary to the general opinion about these journals, don't you think?
The general opinion about science is so wrong. People live in a society thinking technology is important. The last twenty years is a period where science has been less important because people are focused on money. Technology and science are being completely obscured. It is the other way around – Nature contributes to the low quality of science. People have been talking about electromagnetic cloaking for what, 25 years now? Did it happen? No. Was it obvious from day one? Yes. So why do we talk about it? Many papers published in Nature are doing that. Quantum computing is obviously nonsense from day one. They tell you they need a million qubits not being able to explain what even one is, and we need a thousand. It is not going to happen.
Isn’t at least Nader Engheta going in that direction?
No, Nader Engheta is doing something else. He is explaining to people that do not know electromagnetics how quantum phenomena relate to classical phenomena. He uses the EM wave to do Fourier transform and mathematical operations.
Which are the building stones on the way to build an analog computer?
Analogue computer is perfect, it is not a quantum computer though. If they can explain what a qubit is, it would be okay. Forget about all of that. There are people in TNO, Netherlands, where I used to work that put an enormous amount of money into the development of quantum radar. What is a quantum radar? Nobody knows. I tried them to have it explained to me but what they were saying was ridiculous. Why do you do that? The Chinese are beating us with 5G already, why do we need to think about quantum radar which is going to happen thirty years from now? What if the Chinese are already doing it? Hmm, and what if they are doing a fartum radar? What is a fartum radar? A radar that can detect farts… it is the same thing – complete nonsense. Money completely thrown away.
Still, most people want to publish in journals like Nature, or Science, to get more exposure and an easier way to get funding in the future. Would you say they are good at least for this purpose?
No, if I see a colleague who is trying to publish in these journals, I immediately realize he/she is doing something not for the sake of science, but for publicity, which is very bad. Any position you are in is funded by public money. There is no real private investment in research – this is another thing that does not exist. All the work we are producing is thanks to public money. So why would you want to attract more publicity to yourself?
Does the publicity enable you to get sponsorship for the research you want to do?
No. People who write about quantum computers are always publishing in these journals. They get funding to do things you do not want to do. I do not believe that people who work on quantum computers think that quantum computing is possible, I simply do not believe it. I think they know it is all nonsense. Otherwise, they are damaged. They just need the funding to maintain empires that would otherwise collapse. It is a distorted part of science. If these people do not get funding from reasonable institutions, they go to this ‘exposure’ kind of phenomena. We, on the other hand, have won all the proposals for ten years. Essentially fifteen years, and it is not a problem to get more funding. The challenge is to spend it well. It is much more difficult than to acquire it.
Does it not make sense to be a dreamer today anymore? Like the people publishing in Science and Nature?
They are not dreamers, but people attached to money. They want to get visibility. They do not dream that the quantum computer is going to happen, after thirty years, why would you think it would?
Would you say that the impact factor is a false measure by which to choose journals to publish in?
It is a measure of popularity, not a measure of quality. If you take Playboy, it has a much higher impact factor than Nature, I am sure. Playboy should be a higher quality journal in that case. Popularity contest has nothing to do with usefulness. It is the other way around. No one reads papers of my most qualified colleagues, the people working on very complex topics. They are simply too complex for the general public. I read these papers, but I do not read the papers in Nature.
Yet, the general instruction on how to choose a journal to publish in is often based on the impact factor.
Many people do so, yes. That is a problem of funding mechanisms. They became too oriented by the general public and sensationalism. It is an apolitical movement that got lots of votes and is producing one disaster after another. They complained about the corruption of politicians. But what they are doing, if it is not because they are corrupt, it must be sheer stupidity. Because the majority of people do one error after another, deciding about topics in which they are not competent. And you would think that there is a 50/50 chance to get things right, at least that is a general perception. The chances are not 50/50, but more like 1/99, or even 1/1000. The chance you get something right if you are not educated and you have a lot of options are zero. The same applies to science.
Are you on any editorial boards of journals?
I have been part of many journal boards but at this moment I am part of IEEE Transactions on Antennas and Propagation and IEEE Transactions on Terahertz Science and Technology. Before I was in AWPL. Essentially, all IEEE journals.
What was/is the biggest challenge you face as an editor?
Finding good reviewers, because the good reviewers rarely have time. They are always booked, and they sometimes do the review if the paper writes about a specific topic they like, in which case they will say yes. But in general, for 8 out of 10 papers you will not find good reviewers. In this case, the papers are sent to reviewers that are willing to emerge, but they are simply not knowledgeable enough.
How is it then possible to bridge the gap between generations – where you want to get a quality review for a paper and breed a new generation at the same time?
You need to pay them. I think there is no other way. You want to find good people – you pay them.
Besides the obvious conflict of interests, how many of your colleagues would be willing to be professional reviewers?
It is only a matter of how much you pay, isn’t it?
Would you do it?
Of course, I would do it. If the purpose is to have a high-quality journal, that would be a great achievement. Many students and professors from less important universities would know what to read. They would be pointed to this journal and they are done. This way you save a lot of money. The problem of quantum computing we talked about and what if the Chinese do it, what is that? Complete nonsense, it is a noise. The point is, if you want quality, you need to pay for it, there is no other way, there is really no other way. In this conference, 1300 papers are published, and its success is measured by the number of attendees. The only reason why they need more attendees is that next time they can rent a bigger place. It is an economical tradeoff – it is all about money. If I hired a few reviewers to do the reviews, it costs nothing compared to organizing a conference, where so many people come from all over the world to contribute essentially to nothing.
Yet you are here at the conference as well…
Because I know a few people here are very strong researchers and I come to listen to what they have to say. Because otherwise, where do I meet them? The problem for the people who are not strong researchers yet is, that coming here, if they are not told whose talks to listen to, they go home disappointed thinking they did not like anything they have seen here. Out of simultaneous sections, there are maybe one or two relevant people.
Would you say that creating a journal where reviewers are paid, and the emphasis is on quality would be eventually headed the same direction Nature and Science are now?
The risk is there, but it would depend on who would be reading it. Everyone knows who the good researchers are. There is a famous movie with an American actor, where the main character said he was coming from another planet. They asked him how did he know his planet was good or bad? He said everyone knows which planet is good and which one bad. The question is whether you decide to act upon it or not. I think everyone knows the good scientists.
How would you prevent corruption though? Even if you know who the good scientists are...
I think every system eventually becomes corrupt. The one we function in now is the most corrupt there is - to an absurd level. All the money that goes into organizing this conference is thrown away, completely. The taxpayer’s money being thrown away. There is a famous book in Italy called ‘The history of stupidity.’ The idea is whether it is better to be governed by stupid people who are very honest, or by corrupt ones who are very intelligent. The book concludes that it is much better to be governed by intelligent corrupt people because at least they follow their interests. The stupid ones will not even be able to maintain the system as it is. Because that is what is happening - the Chinese are invading us because of our stupidity. There is a problem with democracy, science is not democratic at all. And it should not be, the less it is, the better it works.
Would you say it should be meritocratic although there is a thin line between meritocracy and corruption?
Yes. Look at the Italian university system. There is absolutely no control. Professors can do whatever they like. Seventy percent of them steal, do not go to work, or do anything. Thirty percent of them are exceptional. Those thirty percent are the only ones contributing to science in Europe. In northern countries where everything is controlled and they are making sure there is no corruption, no one does real research and they do not even realize it. If you leave people to work by themselves, the good ones will work anyway, and the bad ones will not do a thing. And that is the only model that works. I work at TU Delft (Netherlands) for 10 years and before I worked outside Italy for 25 years. All the systems with quality control fail dramatically because they lack competence. What works though, is when some people do know what they are doing, work for the best possible result, and they do it regardless if you pay them. They are the real scientists.
So, science should be die-hard, free for all competition?
That is the only possibility and it is like that already. I would say that the system with a lot of control is not bad, it just does not lead to excellence. Some people emerge even from such an environment, but very few. I came out of an Italian University when I was 24 and went to work for ESA where I realized I knew more than anyone, even though I was only 24. How is that possible I knew more than all the people from other countries? We Italians are used to imagine our system as a very corrupt one. Just because I was a student of Stefano Maci who is a top guy, which was obvious to me the moment I saw him. I saw he was a giant, which helps. That makes you realize you do not have to come from Berkley to be good. If you come from a very poor university but there is one person that knows a lot, he is going to teach you much more than any institution that can be much more prestigious. It is very difficult to manage this, but if you are afraid of managing excellence, you do not get it. The top scientist like Peter Siegel (founder of the Transactions on Terahertz Science and Technology) left JPL at the age of 55. He was unemployed for five years during which he earned another Ph.D. in biology because he wanted to invest his time in that field. Some people have the drive for research. It is not about the positions, and the people who are the drivers, like Stefano Maci, you will recognize almost immediately. And they are those you should ask for help. You cannot ‘build’ Peter Siegel, he was born like that. You can not create a system out of which people like Peter Siegel emerge. During his time at JPL, he experienced many difficulties with bureaucracy because he would not carry a badge and was against the bureaucracy as such.
Is the present system at TU Delft like the Italian one?
No, it is not. In the Netherlands, only one thing is respected very much - money. This I understood very quickly. It is a well-organized system if you have enough money. If you bring enough money in, they let you do what you want. That system is an institution that does everything to obscure science, but it tolerates money, so they tolerate me because we bring enough funding. Once you are good enough in a northern institution, you can survive easily. Not because the system encourages you to, on the contrary, but they do tolerate money.
Why did you choose to work at TU Delft?
It is the best place there is. I was offered the job and I cannot imagine a better place. I know many people with careers everywhere and they all complain about their institutions wherever they are. I cannot imagine a better place than TU Delft at this moment.
I am just trying to understand the contrast between the Italian system that promotes excellence, yet it is harder to get funding...
The Italian system accepts excellence. Regarding the funding, it is different already – it used to be very easy to get funding. Everyone would get funded to do what they want. I graduated in 1994, a few years after the Berlin wall fell. These were dramatic times because, within five to six years, the funding for electromagnetics decreased by a factor of 10. There was no need to develop new radars. The cold war was over at which moment the funding for electromagnetics went to zero. Essentially entire Italian economy collapsed, pretty much for the same reason – it lost American support since there was no one to fight anymore. The last one to get through the system was Stefano Maci. If I could choose, I would go back immediately but that option was not available anymore.
Do you think open access movement is a good thing or not?
I think it is good not to have to pay for publications but if it comes at the expense of quality. People are not going to use it. It is not the main problem of the scientific community. I am always upset when I cannot download a paper I am interested in when I am at home. So, in that sense, it would be extremely comfortable to have access to all the publications. What I am against though, is the proliferation of occasions to publish. It is the quality of the publication that counts, not the number of publications.
Is this not relative though? Understandably, you are interested in the top-notch content, but also the application papers of postdocs or grad students can be useful for someone…
I am an engineer, and I think the application is fundamentally important. But there is a difference between good application and not-application. All my time at ESA or NASA we were doing applications, even at TNO. I was doing the theory as a lateral part of the job, but the main thing was the application. There is a huge difference between application and nonsense. I mean, enormous, and noise does not help. I am not interested in purely theoretical papers at all, just good quality. You must know that when you read something that this is the state of the art and you cannot do better. Or, it must be clear it cannot be done better. Instead, you always find a paper saying, ‘we have done it differently.’ But differently does not help unless you present a new vision of something.
Especially the people working in the industry often have difficulty publishing their papers due to the lack of perceived novelty despite the results of their work can be valuable to many.
There are journals for different purposes. Some of them do not require an innovation aspect, like IEEE Antennas and Propagation Magazine. For example, IEEE Terahertz Science and Technology always requires authors to have measurements included to be able to publish there. They publish things that are shitty just because they have measurements. I mean, wherever you look, it is all about the quality. If you do not have reviewers that can recognize the quality, any parameter you introduce is going to be misused. There is a paper I consider the best I analyzed in years. It was rejected by IEEE Terahertz Science and Technology because there were no measurements included. We divided it into two parts. Part one was about theory and part two about measurements. And because of the measurements policy, they insisted that each of the papers had to contain measurements. So, they said they would only take part two. I said okay and sent it to Transactions on Antennas and Propagation. They loved the paper and thought it was fantastic. Sometimes if you accept a rule or a dogma to ensure some parameters, you will die by that rule. That is why you need to be flexible. And the flexibility can only be maintained if you have people knowledgeable enough to understand that the rule was there for a reason and it does not make sense to apply now.
Would you say that the general lack of data accompanying papers is a problem?
Well, yes. The repeatability of an experiment is important. The page limit is a problem too. It would be helpful to be able to publish as much material as needed including appendices. This is something I appreciate with some of the physics journals that have appendices accompanying papers where you can find all the details.
Would you say the requirement on accompanying data would improve the quality as well?
Yes, it would. Because many experiments are published with insufficient description. For example, if people in quantum computing described how they conducted the experiments, the field would have collapsed thirty years ago. But they never do.
Do you think the publishing process in the journals you have been and are part of is transparent?
I think it is completely transparent. It is biased of course. I think it is positively biased through the person that does the review. We try to make it as fair as possible, no entity is trying to obscure the process. The only thing that gets in the way is money. I get emails from IEEE journals saying, ‘we want to publish at least 500 or 600 papers this year, so please get them through.’ Pushing us to be more productive. But the pressure is certainly not coming only from the publishing industry but also the universities. They want more students to graduate - from the second year we want higher passing rates… The whole society is pushing for higher dilution of quality. And if the scientists do not stop that, which is practically happening now, we are flooded with low quality.
One of the annual reports from IEEE I read states also the economical situation revealing large amounts of savings which are meant for special occasions or times of crisis. This kind of explains the pressure which you just described from the organization.
As I said before, there are 1300 people in this conference out of which 10% are real scientists. Another 10% still works in the field apart from the people that pass and go. Probably more than 50% of our colleagues are not real scientists. They are there for a job, they have a family to provide for. And somehow, they have the interest to have roles pushing money left and right. It is proven that some societies work better if there are money pushers. So probably there is a need for a minimum amount of inefficiency just enough for the system to work. And the IEEE case you talk about – some people justify their existence by pushing the money from one side to the another. They get themselves into leading positions where they try to represent the interest of the majority, which is almost always contrary to the interest of science. Just like in a democracy, most of the people that want power do not necessarily know better what to do with it. When I worked at TNO, at some point I was not able to grow. I could have stayed there for a long time, but I was not going to grow. I figured that if I wanted to have a bit more impact, I must create my group. So, I had to step up and create it. Otherwise, I would have stagnated. Which means being phased out. I think the industry is worse off, it has died way more than science. What is happening in science reflects the society we live in – a complete decline. Take Trump, the president of the US – how much of a decline does he represent? What do you expect from IEEE if their president is Trump? Like the Romans before the barbarian invasion, society is collapsing. The Chinese can beat us in electronics, it is almost ridiculous. They do not really know anything, but if you just need to copy what others do… and then we think we are investing in quantum computing, no, we are throwing the money down the toilet.
Eventually, everything works in cycles, right?
Thank you very much, this was great!
I do not know if it was great...
I think so, thank you!