Innovation Hub: Why Science Plays Small Ball

The scientific revolution has ended. Or, at least it’s on pause, according to Roberta Ness, vice president of innovation at the University of Texas Health Science Center. She believes that science’s most promising thinkers aren’t taking big enough risks. They’re not researching the next penicillin or investigating new theories of relativity; they’re playing it safe.

Ness points out that there are a number of reasons for this, and funding is one of them. Industry is interested in ideas that are marketable, commercializable, and profitable. And earth-shattering innovations often don’t have immediate implications for the bottom line. I spoke with Ness about scientists’ frustration—and possible solutions.

[This interview has been edited and condensed. For the full conversation, visit innovationhub.org.]

Kara Miller: What was going so wrong in academia that you wanted to bring attention to it?

Roberta Ness: There are truly barriers to innovation within the system of science that I became concerned about on the basis of what, frankly, the next generation of scientists were telling us. So as I was going around the country, and very frequently a young person would stand up and say, “I love what you just talked about. I would give my eyeteeth to pursue that thinking, but if I did I would never be able to get a grant again.” After that conversation happened at least half a dozen times, I started saying, “Wow…there is a problem here.”

KM: What is the barrier? Are people in academia not encouraged to take a risk?

RN: There are a plethora of reasons. One of those reasons is that this country has been racing towards more commercialization, more entrepreneurship. And products that are created out of that kind of science, that kind of thinking, tend to be much more evolutionary. They are much more the obvious next step. Things that are truly revolutionary innovations are oftentimes conceptual and not patentable, so, in some ways, they are devalued in today’s culture.

KM: What kinds of things tend to get funded by private companies rather than public entities? How do they differ in what they fund?

RN: The government continues to be the major source of funding for basic science. But it is no longer the most dominant source of funding overall for research and development. Industry has taken on that role, and they are interested in a profit margin. They are working from quarter to quarter, trying to make boards happy, and trying to make investors happy. They are really looking at what’s marketable, commercializable, and profitable. And again, big innovations—earth-shattering, science-changing kinds of creativity—are not that.

KM: OK, so how do you change this trend, and embrace earth-shattering work?

RN: The government needs to have a transparent, honest conversation with the American public and policymakers, so that we can decide on a portfolio of funding science. The portfolio will need to support both the evolutionary, normal science projects that are ongoing and support a real number of much higher-risk projects. After one of my talks at the National Institutes of Health, a director stood up and asked how they could tell the difference between a risky proposal and a crazy, infeasible proposal. I told them that they couldn’t. In other words, when venture capitalists take a risk on something new, they know that 95 percent of the time, they will fail.

KM: Are people outside of the science community surprised that there is a creativity crisis?

RN: There are a number of pundits like David Brooks and Tyler Cowen who have made the same claim that I do. But most people are incredulous. They think there are breakthroughs every minute because of the number of new apps and the speed of smartphones’ growth. But these breakthroughs are evolutionary. They are not the type of breakthroughs that science needs to have to solve the problems that are going to destroy us like climate change, water scarcity, emerging epidemics, and cancer. It’s astonishing how big these problems are and how little progress is being made.

Tricia Breton contributed to this write-up.

Kara Miller is the host of “Innovation Hub,” a national radio program that features the thinkers, researchers, and visionaries who are crafting the future. She is based at WGBH Radio in Boston. Follow @IHubRadio

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  • MedTech Catalyst

    I think paradigm shifting (breakthrough innovation) is much more difficult to fund and bring to market with a good ROI because the capital required to develop the innovation and then to educate the market on something new is often too great. Funding incremental improvement that already fits within the “vocabulary” of the market is significantly easier to bring to market. So I tend to focus on value added technology that makes things faster, cheaper and/or easier.

  • YeahRight

    As soon as Dr. Ness writes her first paper in theoretical physics, I will start taking her seriously. If she could, she would understand the fundamental difficulties of 21st century science. They have absolutely nothing to do with funding or human intellectual effort. They are buried in the very structure of nature. We have reached some seriously hard limits, just like scientists in the 19th century had reached a similar roadblock before relativity and quantum mechanics were understood. The process to overcome those limits of experiment and thought took 50 years of extremely hard work by some of the most congenial people. We are, sadly, at a similar roadblock right now. That, of course, might be a little hard to see from the Women’s Health department. It’s about a lightyear away from the physics department, where the real science happens.