Friday, September 28, 2007

High risk, high payoff research

There is an interesting blog posting at Advanced Nanotechnology on The struggle over high risk, high payoff research, which pours scorn on the current low-risk approach to research funding. I have extracted some of the more interesting snippets below.

The blog posting itself makes the following comments:

...the United States science and technology research community has seen a return to a culture which is less likely to pursue high risk/high payoff technology research.
There is a struggle between those who want more High risk, high payoff scientific and technological research and development and those who want only timid, incremental goals who also ridicule even the description of a high payoff technological possibility.

Farber [who] sits on a computer science advisory board at the NSF [says]:

... he has been urging the agency to "take a much more aggressive role in high-risk research." He explains, "Right now, the mechanisms guarantee that low-risk research gets funded. It's always, 'How do you know you can do that when you haven't done it?' A program manager is going to tell you, 'Look, a year from now, I have to write a report that says what this contributed to the country. I can't take a chance that it's not going to contribute to the country.'"
The old head of ARPA Charles Herzfeld says (see here):
...the people that you have to persuade are too busy, don't know enough about the subject and are highly risk-averse ... If the system does not fund thinking about big problems, you think about small problems.

It's all pretty damning stuff. Only slightly tongue-in-cheek, I blame it all on the rise of the use of the spreadsheet as a management and accountancy tool, which makes it far too easy for unimaginative people to become so engrossed with the numbers in their spreadsheets that they overlook the big picture.


rt said...

Equally tongue in cheek - might one find an echo of this risk aversion in the work of those financed by Simonyi? Calling God a twat in a secular society (Dawkins) and creating beautiful maths that cannot be tested experimentally (Witten) hardly qualify as reckless endeavours.

Stephen Luttrell said...

The issue is one of testability. Both Dawkins and Witten are asking scientific questions, for which there is no immediate prospect of scientific evidence for or against. We should be asking such questions, and then storing them away for future investigation. Or asking them just to provoke people into thinking in new ways. Wouldn't it be sad if we only ever asked questions that had an immediate bearing on the world?

Dawkins says that asking whether God exists is a scientific question that is (potentially) amenable to scientific investigation, if only we could think of the right experiments to do to gather the evidence.

Witten seems to be compelled by mathematical beauty (there is nothing wrong with that), and it will be even better if his stringy mathematical constructs can be shown to correspond to what goes on in the real world, if only we could think of the right experiments to do to gather the evidence.