April 08, 2015

Science is in a rut, according to Roberta Ness

Science is in a rut, according to Roberta Ness Credit: Andrew Huff / Flickr Creative Commons

It feels like science and technology are moving quickly. Look at the Apple Watch, or cool new apps, or the new cancer and HIV drugs on the market. Except, that’s not the kind of progress we really need, argues Roberta Ness, VP of Innovation at the University of Texas’ Health Science center. She says that science has been stuck in a rut, and that it hasn’t been making the world-changing discoveries that once were commonplace. Ness believes that today’s science is great at producing evolutionary ideas - like the next iteration of a smartphone - or creating a new cancer drug that gives a patient three or four more months of life. But the revolutionary ideas ideas - like the theory of relativity or the development of penicillin - haven’t been coming around quite as often.

Ness points to a lot of culprits to explain this shift. Businesses, the government, and academia all devalue transformative work, she explains. The private sector doesn’t fund much pure research, the kind that isn’t easily patentable. Remember Bell Labs? Scientists there worked on everything from UNIX to lasers - and even discovered background cosmic radiation! But the laboratory founded by Ma Bell is now a shell of its former self. In Ness’ view, the government isn’t much better, with steadily shrinking grants going to cautious, plodding research, not the big-risk, big-reward science that leads to earth-shattering developments.

Still, the biggest obstacle, according to Ness, lies within the walls of the ivory tower. “Promotion and tenure are the coins of the realm, it’s the complete focus of young people in academia. Always. The rules for what buys you promotion and tenure are getting individual grants, writing papers as first author, patents. And all of those things are based on quick wins and individual accomplishments.” The long, collaborative work that’s necessary for big breakthroughs… well, that’s an easy way to have your career go nowhere, according to Ness.

Now, this type of pie-in-the-sky research definitely raises an issue: how do you know the difference between a high-risk, possibly revolutionary idea, and one that’s just, well, crazy?

Ness has a simple answer.

“You won’t know. When venture capitalists take a bet on something really new, they know they’re going to be wrong 90-95% of the time. On the other hand, the 5-10% they’re right, they might get some huge hit. So, it’s risky and failure-prone.” But those huge hits are completely worth it, at least in her opinion.

This isn’t to say that Ness is totally down on the current state of science. She says that recent finds about the importance of bacteria in our bodies is vital, with both positive and negative effects, as an example of a truly cutting-edge scientific development. But for the huge challenges facing our species - drastic climate change, water scarcity, and a multitude of epidemics - Ness wants more revolutionary ideas. Only if we also focus on high-risk research, she argues, can science truly help solve the world’s problems.

science, technology, Sci and Tech, creativity, Roberta Ness, funding

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