For breakthrough ideas, science needs to take more risks

The computer that Tim Berners-Lee used to invent the World Wide Web at CERN. The book is probably "Enquire Within upon Everything", which TBL describes on page one of his book Weaving the Web as "a musty old book of Victorian advice I noticed as a child in my parents' house outside London". (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The computer that Tim Berners-Lee used to invent the World Wide Web at CERN. The book is probably “Enquire Within upon Everything”, which TBL describes on page one of his book Weaving the Web as “a musty old book of Victorian advice I noticed as a child in my parents’ house outside London”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In March 1989, Tim Berners-Lee, a 33-year-old software engineer at CERN, Europe’s largest Physics Laboratory, was frustrated with how the internet would only enable sharing of information between clients and a single server. Doing anything more required establishing a new connection.

To get around this, Berners-Lee had a creative idea — use a hypertext system that would elegantly connect machines and servers across a ‘world wide Web.’

Like any researcher, Berners-Lee had to find support to work on his idea. He wrote up a 14-page proposal and sent it to his boss at CERN, Mike Sendall, who famously scribbled the following on the front-page: “Vague, but exciting….”

We are all very lucky that Berners-Lee was in a time and place that gave the young engineer some latitude to pursue his vague but creative idea, one that would ultimately change the world. If Berners-Lee had had to submit his idea to government funding agencies for support, who knows where the internet would be today?

Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman once said, “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”

Today, however, the hundreds of billions of dollars of government funding that supports the world’s academic research ecosystem is distributed based almost exclusively on the opinions of senior experts (or ‘peers’).

These experts review proposals and seek to find ideas impervious to criticism. Unfortunately, a research idea that is immune to criticism during peer review will, by its very nature, be cautious and take minimal risks.

Rather than have peers assess the innovative potential of an idea, preliminary data and publication records are now the dominant parts of the evaluation. Funding is so tight and proposals are so heavily critiqued that any one reviewer can kill a grant proposal based on arbitrary metrics of quality — or even if they suspect the idea just won’t work.

Yet relying only on peer-review misses something about the nature of scientific innovation: some of the biggest discoveries are deemed crazy or impossible by experts at the time.

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