New Einsteins and Research Markets?

Black swan

"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:

It is too easy for scientists in the “establishment” of any field to cut down new ideas, and to do so without really putting anything at risk, thereby leading to a culture that is systematically biased toward caution.

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.


  1. Great article Roland! I am really interested in this stuff being as I am an academic (caveat- social sciences) researcher half of my time. A couple of comments from that perspective:
    An important institutional aspect of this ‘researcher’s dilemma’ is that the position of privilege of more established academics enables them to set the research agenda through their control over publication and financial resources (peer review of journals and grants). One would expect those younger researchers intent on augmenting and strengthening the frameworks developed by their seniors to be more likely to get published and funded than those who challenge them. A young ‘rational’ researcher might well decide that in this environment, it is better to be conservative and incremental than radical.
    This is what Thomas Kuhn talked about when describing the day-to-day inside a ‘normal science’ paradigm which will tend to ignore ‘anomalies’ and challenges coming from ‘revolutionary scientists’.
    The way I describe it might make it sound like there is a cabal of high ranking people blocking alternative theories for their own nefarious purposes, but this need not be the case at all. From their perspective, they are just exercising the ‘quality control functions’ we usually associate with peer review- revolutionary stuff often sounds like nonsense and gobbledygook when first uttered!
    I am however not sure about the solution to this issue put forward by Eric Weinstein, insofar the danger of financial loss might actually increase risk aversion! I think that what we need is non-peripheral spaces (conferences and journals) where radical challenges can be put forward and discussed by different tribes (instead of the current situation, at least in economics, where ‘radicals’ celebrate their own conferences and preach to the converted, while the mainstream ignores them). Say, I was talking with some colleagues today about how useful (and cathartic!) it would be to have a meeting where we wrote in a board all those conventional assumptions, statements and theories everyone in my field (erm, creativity, innovation and organisation) agree on, and then we proceeded to trash them mercilessly to see where we got.
    Anyway, thank you for the post, and take care!

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