Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Goose of Science

Flush with the success of the Manhattan Project, the federal government in 1945 produced the famous report Science: The Endless Frontier, which laid the groundwork for the National Science Foundation and the huge complex of federally sponsored research that sprang up during the Cold War.

The frontier metaphor may be apt, but it is not the best metaphor for how government and industry actually view scientific research.

If someone is paying you to do research, you quickly figure out that you are just another part of the supply chain, much like the steelworkers, buyers, tire makers and truck drivers. Into the factory go sheet metal, seats, paint, tires, windows, and out the other end come cars. But there's something else that goes into the factory: the CAD files that tell them how to build the car. That's where you, the researcher come in.

To make the sheet metal, someone has to dig rocks out of the ground, grind them up, put them in a furnace that separates the iron from the slag, then pour off the iron, add carbon and other stuff, and roll it out into steel. To make CAD files, someone has to think up ideas, screen out the bad ideas by testing and analysis, and then put the ideas on paper, or on pixels.

You, the researcher, are the person who thinks up the products, finds the good ones, and tells the factory how to build them. As far as the business is concerned, you are almost the same as the guy who skims the slag off at the steel mill. You skim off the bad ideas; he skims off the dirt.

Note that I said "almost the same." The business sees you as different in one interesting respect. It has been the case a few times in history that someone invented a blockbuster product seemingly out of of nowhere, and, of the greatest interest to businesspeople, with almost no money. Examples are the Wright Brothers' invention of the airplane and the Google guys' invention of the PageRank algorithm. There's no equivalent of this elsewhere in the supply chain. It's as if someone waved a magic wand in an empty warehouse and suddenly it was filled with thousands of brand new V-6 engines waiting to be dropped into cars.

The process by which blockbuster products are invented is understood about as well as magic wands. About all we can say is that such inventions require an energetic genius to be in exactly the right place and time. Then the "magic" happens. This lack of understanding, and a near-total lack of success in reproducing equally valuable results, does not stop businesspeople from trying. They say things like, "innovate or die" and "invent the future". Just wave the magic wand; that's all they're asking. They know they can pour money and manpower into a research lab and get a steady trickle of incremental improvements, but they've heard about the magic wand and they can't stop thinking about it. They want the next big thing.

This is why I think the frontier metaphor doesn't quite tell the story. The real metaphor for sponsored research is a goose that could lay perfectly good eggs but can't because the farmer is feeding her all kinds of weird seeds, constantly fussing with her nest and feathers, sprinkling pixie dust on her, and subjecting her to the whims of traveling charlatans (aka consultants), trying to get her to lay that one golden egg that would make it all worthwhile.

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