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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Science Entrepreneurs

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Science progresses like evolution. In both, there are endless little improvements to make to get you incrementally from here to there... But this only works for some things, and only for so long, until the path of improvement is seemingly blocked (or at best asymptotic). Then, in evolution, once in a very long while something happens by chance, that just-right permutation of two or three things at once that solves a problem that couldn't be solved by any one lucky change alone. And suddenly there is a rush of new activity, as this qualitative or quantum improvement opens the door for incremental adaptation again, all the things that can be done with this new "major" innovation.

In science, the "system" very much encourages--nay, demands--incremental improvements, and perhaps most progress, measured in miles, happens this way. But like evolution, it eventually runs aground and progress essentially stops (the papers don't! they just keep pushing harder and harder for another inch up the sand...). And the reason for this in science, as in evolution, is simply that the current foundation isn't sufficient--something larger needs to be changed. A new way of approaching things, a new way to ask an old question, going back and challenging long-held premises, that sort of thing... But like evolution, this sort of improvement is rare and very hard to find, so it is *risky*. That is, you can spend your whole life on it, and you might or might not be the lucky one to find it. If your career depends on it, you're probably better off helping push the boat a little further into the sand, because that's practically deterministic, and since that's as much as anybody is managing, it's good enough by definition. If your career depends on it, you aren't going to search for the new paradigm, because that could take months, years, decades, or more than a lifetime, and there's no way to know until you find it--and there's no way to justify your stipend, your grants, your existence until then either.

But there's no obvious solution to this. You can't hire people to look for new paradigms because you'll have no way to know if they're actually doing useful work in that direction or just playing solitaire all day long--the outward results are often the same for a very long time. And this is why academia demands incremental work. Corporate research is similar, though places like Xerox PARC, Apple ATG (back in the day), and perhaps Google today, have at times provided a bit more freedom to explore without the burden of proof. (Typically, though, this chance is only offered to those who have proven themselves already. Google may be an exception in that all employees are encouraged to devote some percentage of their paid time to their own projects, ideas, innovations, with no expectations imposed...)

What this leaves is the rare "science entrepreneur" -- someone willing to risk their own time and money on the pursuit of a new paradigm, because _they_ know they're not playing solitaire. But since the risk remains high, it would be quite a gamble to go into it for the money... which means they better damn well love it...

So, who are these people? Few and far between, in my experience... But ultimately science depends on them, waits for them while simultaneously denying their role... keeps pushing the boat a little further into the sand until one day the crazy guy with the balloon lofts it skyward and everybody grabs onto the ropes and climbs on board and sets about making propellers and bellows and compressors to control this new ship in flight as if they'd been busy about this all along...


"I'd rather be a failure at something I enjoy than a success at something I hate." -George Burns

(My oft-uncanny random sig picker picked that sig...)

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Simon Funk / simonfunk@gmail.com