Sunday, 26 June 2011

Why "Blue Sky" research is so difficult

First published in the New Scientist 14 July 1988
Why Genius gets nipped in the bud

SO YOU'VE just had a brilliant idea. You were relaxing in the university's senior common room after a heavy session of exam marking and then Eureka! - There it was. Those patterns of dancing shadows suddenly came together and you saw the flaw in the current theories, and the scintillating alternative. What will this mean? Promotion? Possibly a chair? Your own research team? You imagine the applause as you go up to get your Nobel prize. Then you wake up.

You think for a moment. Clearly the existing theories are dubious, but hundreds of people have been probing them for years without finding a definite flaw. And that scintillating solution looks a little less certain in the cold light of day.

Then you think of Archimedes's bath, Newton's apple and Einstein's tram journey and you realise that serendipity has played a significant role in many important discoveries. Could you really be one of the chosen? You doubt it, but after all it has to be somebody - so why not you? Being a methodical sort of person, you sit down and assess what the vision will mean.

First of all you will have to have a rigorous look at the idea to see if it is feasible. You don't want to promote a theory that is fundamentally flawed.

Then you will have to check the literature to find out what, if anything, has been done before. You are pretty sure that no one in your field has come up with the idea - but can you be sure? And if they have done, how would they have described it and where would it be indexed in the literature? Even worse, the key to the solution lies in an interdisciplinary area, so there may be key references in a field where you have no specialist knowledge. If the search comes up positive you will have wasted your time, while proving the negative is a tedious and thankless task.

Will your colleagues help? Unfortunately not. James and Daphne will lend an ear, and make encouraging noises, but that is all. James is bogged down trying to hype his currently rather shaky research project in an attempt to get an extension to his grant from the Science and Engineering Research Council. Daphne is far too busy with the new "money-raising" course for post­graduate students. She is desperately trying to make sure that next year the department gets sufficient students enrolled to cover the direct costs, following this year's fiasco. Matthew will dismiss your idea as nuts because that is how he treats all new ideas that are not his own, and the rest of the staff are just not interested.

So what about some internal funding? The departmental vote is very thin. It can be spent only on topics within the overall research plan, drawn up last year to cover research till 1992. Within this framework, it is restricted to topics which have an immediate chance of bringing in external funds. Unfortunately, your idea is not covered by the plan (for obvious reasons), and while it could have very interesting theoretical implications it is unlikely to be a ready money-spinner in the short term. In any case Matthew is on the research fund committee so you can be doubly certain of no help from this direction.

You spend a mere moment on the problem of raising external funds. After all, the first question that will be asked is "How much money has the university invested in your idea?", on the grounds that if your department doesn't think it worthwhile ...

So you have little option but to publish the idea at a conference in the hope that you will raise enough interest to pursue it further. All you have to do is to get it past the referees ... However, without experimental evidence, the paper is certain to be rejected on the grounds that it is mere speculation from a nobody. The referees will point out that any reasonably well­-equipped laboratory, with a couple of spare research fellows, could have checked the ideas out in a couple of years - so why not come back when you've proved your case?

Suddenly, you realise that there is a far more serious problem. The current scientific system is based on the assumption that there is no such thing as a radically new idea. Each new paper is required to climb on the back of a plethora of earlier published papers, and does little more than add another layer of gloss to the cited references. Genuinely new ideas do not have a heap of existing papers to support them. This means that the standard of proof. expected will be very much higher than for a typical "me too" paper. You glance across at the old medieval library and note with alarm that the bust of Aristotle seems to be laughing at you.

Having looked at all these problems you realise that following up your idea is not going to be easy. New ideas can take time to come to fruition - and the image of Darwin labouring on his manuscripts flashes past your eyes. You look out of the window and admire the sweet peas, and remember that major ideas are sometimes not recognised until after the originator has died. You sit there in your stationary chair, watching the sun charge across the sky, and realise that being right is no shield against being held to ridicule by the establishment. (So that was why Aristotle was laughing.) If you follow up the idea there is only a small chance of success, and there is the very real possibility of many years' hard work with little to show in the interim, if ever. Still, a scientist's duty is to follow up new ideas, So of course you will have a go.

The clock chimes. It is time for the staff meeting. The head of department reviews the difficult economic future ahead. Those who do not have external research grants will be expected to take on a heavier teaching load. In addition, the vice chancellor has set guidelines for the number of publications expected from each academic. Those not meeting these guidelines will be encouraged to retire to help to alleviate the university's cash flow problems.

Your mind is made up. You can easily dash off a couple of third-rate "me too" papers a year. If you help James to tart up his research project you may get your name on the grant application, and avoid having to teach on Daphne's wretched course. Of course, your daydream will have to be forgotten, but if no one else is interested in supporting original ideas, why should you take all the risk?

I wrote this at the time Margaret Thatcher (the dark face at the top of the cartoon) was streamlining the U.K. universities by clearing out deadwood (unconventional blue sky research). The pressure for me to radically increase my teaching load, plus the pressure from the head of department "Matthew" to either stop doing research or do research he personally considered was compatible with the establishment viewpoint, were among my reason for quitting a university which was turning into a desert for new ideas in order to meet government imposed short-term targets. If anything the pressure to stop "wasting time" on original thinking because commercial interests are more important is even greater now in UK universities than it was in 1988.

The original title and the cartoon were the editor's idea. 

No comments:

Post a Comment