Skip to main content

How to kill innovation

In a talk on innovation at the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften Juergen Mittelstrass, one of Germanys great living philosophers, added one more slot to the well-known classification of science, leaving us with:  'fundamental research', 'application-oriented research' and 'product-driven application-oriented research'. While he was obviously trying to grant some innovative-potential to research formerly known as 'applied', it soon became clear that innovation would be found rather in the first than in the last box and the terrain for the unexpected was shrinking as it is obvious that innovation by nature is nothing you can plan for and the application-pull would lead to optimizations, inventions, solutions but not to surprises.
His critique of todays ever-growing emphasis on applicability in research-funding was massively amplified by Harald zur Hausen (Nobel-prize in medicine 2008), who reminded everybody that his ground-breaking results were never possible would he have been forced to do that agonizingly predictable research that is on every politicians agenda today. Under the guise of the responsibility to 'give something back to the taxpayer', funding schemes become more and more excel-sheet-driven. The demand for  fine-grained 'milestones' with clear 'expectables' and costs over the whole funding-period (of typically three years) already at the time of grant-application results in scared 'chicken-science' without much space for the unexpected that is one hallmark of innovation. This 'accountability' (that is measured with static parameters such as number of publications, patents, invited talks,...) together with the need to get results that are common-sense in a tightly knit scientific community is killing creativity, innovation and ultimately the return on investment of taxpayers' money, eliminating the central argument for the bureaucratization of science by science-accountants.

Comments

Sandor Ragaly said…
Hi there, Carsten! Good post again...
"Chicken science" is great a word! And it pictures a threat by, amongst others, commercial expectations and pressures, but also relates to one's own assertive (and creative) "potential to dare" in one's work... it names the Anti-Vision; similar one perhaps could call it: Anti-Science (against the spirit, "Just don't make a wrong move"??), or "Bureaucratic Science" ;-) (including e.g. "Don't refer to or even integrate other disciplines - you'll not be able to handle that risk - which it is, of course).

Popular posts from this blog

Academics should be blogging? No.

"blogging is quite simply, one of the most important things that an academic should be doing right now" The London School of Economics and Political Science states in one of their, yes, Blogs . It is wrong. The arguments just seem so right: "faster communication of scientific results", "rapid interaction with colleagues" "responsibility to give back results to the public". All nice, all cuddly and warm, all good. But wrong. It might be true for scientoid babble. But this is not how science works.  Scientists usually follow scientific methods to obtain results. They devise, for example, experiments to measure a quantity while keeping the boundary-conditions in a defined range. They do discuss their aims, problems, techniques, preliminary results with colleagues - they talk about deviations and errors, successes and failures. But they don't do that wikipedia-style by asking anybody for an opinion . Scientific discussion needs a set

My guinea pig wants beer!

Rather involuntary train rides (especially long ones, going to boring places for a boring event) are good for updates on some thoughts lingering in the lower levels of the brain-at-ease. My latest trip (from Berlin to Bonn) unearthed the never-ending squabble about the elusive 'free will'. Neuroscientists make headlines proving with alacrity the absence of free will by experimenting with brain-signals that precede the apparent willful act - by as much as seven seconds! Measuring brain-activity way before the human guinea pig actually presses a button with whatever hand or finger he desires, they predict with breathtaking reproducibility the choice to be made. So what? Is that the end of free will? I am afraid that those neuroscientists would accept only non-predictability as a definite sign of free will. But non-predictability results from two possible scenarios: a) a random event (without a cause) b) an event triggered by something outside of the system (but caused).

No theory - no money!

A neuroscientist I was talking to recently complained that the Higgs-research,even the Neutrino-fluke at CERN is getting humungous funding while neuroscience is struggling for support at a much more modest level. This, despite the undisputed fact that understanding our brain, and ultimately ourselves, is the most exciting challenge around. Henry Markram of EPFL in Switzerland   is one of the guys aiming for big, big funding to simulate the complete brain. After founding the brain institute and developing methods to analyze and then reconstruct elements of the brain in a supercomputer he now applies for 1.5 Billion Euro in EU-funding for the 'flagship-projects' of Blue Brain -and many believe his project is simply too big to fail. Some call the project daring, others audacious. It is one of the so very few really expensive life-science endeavours. Why aren't there more like that around? Why do we seem to accept the bills for monstrous physics experiments more easily? Is