"New Einsteins will not be working in areas that have been well established for decades."
This quote comes from Lee Smolin of the Perimeter Institute in a good article by Mark Buchanan in Physics World this month (here) on Black Swan Theory which refers to a large-impact, hard-to-predict, and rare event beyond the realm of normal expectations.
Specifically he argues how publish-or-perish ethic in research too often favours a narrow and conservative approach to scientific innovation. He suggests that the peer review system, whilst the bastion of our university research landscape, is pushing revolutionary ideas to the margins, and thereby missing out on the big discoveries/innovations that can change the world for the better.This was reinforced by an event we hosted at Nesta on Wednesday with Judy Estrin – ex CTO at Cisco and author of the innovation gap – argues that we have swung too far in favour of productive research that results in short term incremental innovation, at the expense of blue skies, more disruptive innovation.
Two of the institutions that is fostering a longer term approach to curiosity driven reseasrch are the Perimeter Institute and the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico which is doing pioneering interdisciplinary work in complex systems whose 'pay-off' is longer term, but crucially important in an increasingly interconnected world.
Much to my surprise, one of the proposed solutions to this challenge of how we support longer term, risky research, is to introduce the concept of markets to funding research. Eric Weinstein of the Natron Group, a hedge fund in New York, says:
The result, he suggests, is that science is becoming less a “bottom-up” enterprise of free-wheeling exploration — energized by the kind of thinking that led Einstein to relativity — and more a “top-down” process strongly constrained by social conformity, with scientific funding following along fashionable lines. The publish-or-perish ethic, in particular, strongly rewards those scientists doing more or less routine technical work in established fields, and punishes more risky work exploring unproven ideas that may take a considerable period of time to reach maturity.
Therefore if a much wider group of people could take an option based on citations in top 20 leading journals for example then, rather than being dismissed by a narrow peer review system, perhaps that might mean that a market would form around a certain idea and higher risk ideas still have an opportunity to get funded. Weinstein goes on to say:
[Therefore you] make scientists back up their criticisms by taking real financial risks. You think that some new theory is utterly worthless and deserving of ridicule? In the world Weinstein envisions, you could not trash the research in an anonymous review, but would buy some sort of option giving you a financial stake in its scientific future, an instrument that would pay off if, as you expect, the work slides noiselessly into obscurity. The money would come from the theory’s proponents, who would similarly benefit if it pans out into the next big thing.
Given the current economic downturn and the worldwide questioning of markets as efficient predictors of value, there is clearly much more to be worked out here. And I assume the pace of change within academia will take a long time to reach concensus around any new approach to resesrch assessment, let alone one based upon a commercial model. However, if we don't do something, we risk losing the New Einsteins because there is no way to support and fund them.