From Physics World: this is how discovery works …

In search of the black swans – physicsworld.com

This is how discovery works: returns on research investment do not arrive steadily and predictably, but erratically and unpredictably, in a manner akin to intellectual earthquakes. Indeed, this idea seems to be more than merely qualitative.

Squeezing life out of innovation

All of which, as Sornette has been arguing for several years, has important implications for how we think about and judge research investments. If the path to discovery is full of surprises, and if most of the gains come in just a handful of rare but exceptional events, then even judging whether a research programme is well conceived is deeply problematic. “Almost any attempt to assess research impact over a finite time”, says Sornette, “will include only a few major discoveries and hence be highly unreliable, even if there is a true long-term positive trend.”

This raises an important question: does today’s scientific culture respect this reality? Are we doing our best to let the most important and most disruptive discoveries emerge? Or are we becoming too conservative and constrained by social pressure and the demands of rapid and easily measured returns? The latter possibility, it seems, is of growing concern to many scientists, who suggest that modern science is in danger of losing its creativity unless we can find a systematic way to build a more risk-embracing culture. 

The publish-or-perish ethic, in particular, strongly rewards those scientists doing more or less routine technical work in established fields, and punishes more risky work exploring unproven ideas that may take a considerable period of time to reach maturity.

Read more on In search of the black swans – physicsworld.com


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