Sep 19, 2012

Risk-aversion kills innovation


The number of publications and citations, possibly rescaled into more complex relations like the Hirsch-index or fashionable derivatives thereof, are widely accepted parameters to quantify scientific quality.  In times of scarce financial resources, it is argued, transparency is imperative for allocating funds, and substantial investments in science are best legitimized by ,excellent and useful‘ research results.
This is lead by the perception that scientific quality can somehow be objectively measured and the whole process of 'doing science' can ultimately be subjected to some sort of controlling.  While the drive for excellence and usefulness is agreed upon - their definition and measurability, however, is at the center of many a heated debate.
At first sight, benchmarking usefulness translates into a short time-to-market of the research results, general application-orientation and product-driven applied research (a term coined by the german philosopher Juergen Mittelstrass).This rather economic understanding of scientific value is bemoaned in a desperate note by Abraham Flexner: „We hear it said with tiresome iteration that ours is a materialistic age, the main concern of which should be the wider distribution of material goods and worldly opportunities“ - and that was 1939 (The usefulness of useless knowledge).
If usefulness equals monetary return it is worth while looking at the most fundamental and academic research endeavours of the highest quality.  Scanning the Nobel prizes in physics of the last century turns up a majority of science that is predominantly curiosity-driven and that was of pure academic interest at the time it was undertaken. Today, however, the market-value of x-rays, radioactivity, electron-rays,  x-ray diffraction, nuclear fission, and of course semiconductors can not be overstimated.  The annual return on investment of semiconductor industry - including all spin-off markets - is gauged at around 10% of the worlds GDP. Every one of these fundamental discoveries opened markets worth billions and billions of dollars, dwarfing the return on investment of the ubiquitous 'mp3-code' that is quoted as one of the more successful patents from applied research in Germany.
Product driven application oriented research ultimately encourages iterative optimizations well within the  borders of the known. Fundamental research, on the other hand, has the potential for real disruption and a leap in technology - the basis for innovation. Only together technological advance is achievable.
As obvious as this might be, research funding is focusing on the planable, forseeable - and this can be most easily spotted at applied research. The common research project demands for milestones, intermediate reports and justifications if goals are not reached - driving grant-applications into the mainstream. If the results are predictable, if the milestones are reachable, if the project is rather risk-free an application looks promising to take the hurdles of scientific refereeing and the funding agency‘s grant officers. 
But isn‘t the unpredictable and rather frightening wilderness of the unknown where innovation lingers?

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