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Aiming for the unexpected


The other night I received an email from my friend Avi Loeb, the director of the Harvard Institute for Theory and Computation, sharing one of his regular non-refereed astro-ph opinion pieces. Avi likes to share his non-standard opinions and ideas in these short little papers, and I've enjoyed and learned a great deal from his previous contributions, such as this one about taking the road less traveled in ones research.

In his most recent posting, Avi avocates for national funding for "open research without a programmatic agenda establishes a fertile ground for unexpected breakthroughs." This would be in addition to funding for traditional, low-risk endeavors. 


I really like this idea, especially since it resonates with what I'm trying to set up within my own research group at Caltech. I try to make sure that my students and postdocs have primary projects that "pay the bills," as my advisor Geoff Marcy liked to say. But I also encourage open discussion, outside-the-box brain-storming, and inter-group collaboration. Nothing makes me happier than when a student comes to my office with a new idea, or when summer undergrads start up collaborations among themselves and sometimes even with older group members. 


Many of my group's best papers have sprung up while we were pursuing totally different science. For example, earlier this year Phil Muirhead announced the smallest planets ever discovered. He found those planets and their sizes not by searching for the smallest signals in the Kepler mission data sample, but instead by trying to characterize the properties of low-mass stars in the Kepler field. Further, it should be noted that the NASA mission directive for Kepler team is to find Earth-like planets around Sun-like stars. Meanwhile, my group has hit pay dirt by instead studying planets around some of Kepler's least Sun-like target stars. 


Avi writes:

It is common to think about short-term goals in funding physics, but nurturing data-driven research with no programmatic goals promotes innovation and brings unanticipated profits...Over long periods of time, decades or more, the benefits from a data-driven culture without programmatic reins are so great that even profit-oriented businesses may choose to support it.

From here he goes on to describe the stunning historical success of Bell Labs:

This corporation assembled a collection of creative scientists in the same corridor, gave them freedom, and harvested some of the most important discoveries in science and technology of the 20th century, including the foundation of radio astronomy in 1932, the invention of the transistor in 1947, the development of information theory in 1948, the solar cells in 1954, the laser in 1958, the first communications satellite in 1962, the charged-coupled device (CCD) in 1969, and the fiber optic network in 1976. Such long-term benefits require patience and the foresight of paying it forward.

The solution Avi proposes is that funding agencies should set aside a fraction of their funding (say 20%) for centers of excellence with no programatic direction. Instead, people working in these centers should be free to pursue high-risk projects with no clear goal that will inevitably lead to unexpected discoveries that drive science forward, such as those made at Bell Labs. This would be a welcome change from the strict programatic aims of most national funding agencies and the ultra-conservative bent of their grant review panels. 


As someone who has been hitting the grant-writing circuit hard over the past three years with little to show for it, I've become accustomed to reviewers who worry about projects being "too risky." The joke goes that the best way to get funding is to propose for things you've already done; of course, having already done the work necessarily reduces risk. Given the six-month review period of proposals, I basically make this joke my reality with every project I propose. It's pretty frustrating to think that as these negative reviews were being written by some panelist, my group was busy actually doing the "risky" science project described in the proposal! 


Maybe I should start soliciting venture capitol. 

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