Currently, here's how Academia works:

  1. Study for many, many years, so that you have the necessary background knowledge to embark on your own research. You can still do a bit of research on the side, but mostly you are a student learning the ropes. You are (usually) not paid during this step. Even if you are, it won't be much.

  2. Do research. You can (and probably must) still do a bit of study on the side, but mostly you are a researcher contributing to new knowledge in your field. You are paid during this step.

This path is only tenable if the first step, the unpaid one, is relatively short, otherwise it becomes economically unfeasible to become an Academic.

But in Academia, we build upon past knowledge. Hence, it stands to reason that as time progresses, the time and effort needed to complete step 1 and acquire all the necessary background knowledge also increases.

It increases sloooowly, but it does increase. So my question is, what happens when the time needed to complete step 1 has increased by so much that it simply isn't feasible anymore to become an Academic? Hell, what happens when the time needed to complete step 1 increases beyond the life expectancy of humans?

Again, this happens extremely slowly, but it does happen. So does this mean that in a few hundred years, Academia will be a dying field, since nobody simply has time to learn all the background knowledge?

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    We'll be too busy fighting off the Xenos. – Azor Ahai Feb 1 '19 at 19:07
  • Welcome to AC.SE. Please take a look at our help center. While an interesting thought experiment, as it stands now, this question is about a hypothetical situation for which no one can know the answer. That means it probably is not a good fit for our community. – StrongBad Feb 1 '19 at 19:23
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    Well, if that does happen, than being an academic will be the pursuit of the rich. But - it kind of already is, in the sense that a person from a poor household without a supportive environment is much less likely to complete the first phase. Remove scholarships and it's even worse. – einpoklum Feb 1 '19 at 22:12

Even though the body of mankind's knowledge is ever-increasing, the relevant knowledge for pushing a field forward is not increasing at the same rate. In the very early days of electronic calculation, you'd need to understand Maxwell's equations to get a circuit to do what you want. Once that was developed a bit, you could learn to write assembly code, and get a computer to run instructions without having intimate knowledge of electric fields. After awhile, we developed compilers that abstract high-level instructions into something interpretable by the computer, so we don't need to know everything about bit registers to have a functional program. Nowadays, there's lots of freely available open source software, so we can apply sophisticated software to interesting research problems without having the knowledge to write the algorithm ourselves, or how a computer even works.

My point is, while understanding the fundamentals upon which a scientific field is built is important, it's not critical to have a deep of understanding of every single step along the way. Scientists need only to understand the present state of their science in great detail, so long as there's a general understanding of how we got to where we are. Interesting stuff happens at the frontiers of science, which is where scientists rightly focus their attention and energy.

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    At least for me, the relevant knowledge is also increasing faster than I can keep up with it. However, the minimum nececessary knowledge is perhaps not. – Kimball Feb 1 '19 at 21:43

There is one thing that you are leaving out and it is critical to understand it. Researchers work at the frontier of knowledge, the frontier is vast and growing, but an individual only works (concentrates) on a very small part of it. Getting to the "research edge" has always been hard, but no one knows everything within the known bubble of a field if the field is at all advanced.

For example, it is no longer possible for any individual to know all of mathematics. The last time it was possible was early in the 20th century. Henri Poincaré may have been the last. There is too much there. But no mathematician worries about that. You can know a bit about a lot of things, but to work in mathematics you need to know a lot about a few things. So we specialize.

It is also the fact that the path taken by a researcher to reach the edge (say, in mathematics) isn't the same path that was taken 50 years ago, since much of what has been learned in the past hundred years has been abstracted into the courses that fresh students take. That compression wasn't available in the past when a sub-field was fresh.

What you describe as the necessary path isn't wrong, but you don't need to learn everything that it is possible to know in order to be effective in extending the frontier of knowledge. A researcher's path is narrow and deep. You focused on the deep, but it is the narrow that makes it feasible.

For completeness, however, I'll also note that there are parts of academia that value the broad as much as the deep. There is room for the people who know a lot (broad) and can synthesize it for students and for the creation of the learning materials that students use to guide their own path. Such people may not be state-of-the-art researchers, but they understand the edge of the known universe well enough to describe it properly.

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    Even Poincare surely did not know "all of mathematics." (That said, yes, I completely agree about specialization.) – Kimball Feb 1 '19 at 21:41
  • @Kimball, it is possible that he did. Pretty amazing mind. But very unlikely anyone later. The field exploded in the 20th century. – Buffy Feb 1 '19 at 21:45

It's already a problem. But problems can be opportunities as well. Perhaps you can think of ways to more efficiently (this is key, key, key...too many academics ignore constraints) convey classical results in your field. I routinely read classic papers or discussions (e.g. book reviews, committee reports) from the 50s (e.g. post Manhatten Project material science) and think...man, those guys were badasses! Oh...and clear writers too.

Figure out how to make the knowledge transfer faster. For example write a programmed instruction textbook in a graduate topic. Things are so, SOOOO inefficient now. Yeah, maybe in 300 years even with optimized teaching, things will be too hard. But right now, I just see huge places where people spin their wheels and/or don't even know what they don't know. For one thing "pedagogy" is severely lacking for graduate students (their time is treated as free).

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