It is widely discussed, most prominently by Alberts et al., that the current academic culture is increasingly suppressing the creativity, risk-taking, and original thinking required to make fundamental discoveries. A similar sentiment reverberates in this article by Peter Thiel, Technology Stalled in 1970, on the incremental developments of technologies by entrepreneurs, traditionally associated with bold, original and ambitious undertakings. Why is that? What hinders the bold, creative undertakings required for substantive progress?
This simple why question has a complex answer. It could be that at the current stage of technological development, many incremental improvements are easily accessible while the big conceptual questions and the substantial technological improvements are rather inaccessible. It could be that our culture has increasingly myopic time–horizon and prioritizes incremental risk–averse projects with short–term returns over longer–term visionary and riskier projects. It could be the increased competition, though I would argue that creative, non-obvious projects may be a winning competitive strategy. It could be a combination of all these factor and many more not mentioned above. Any suggestions?
The factor that I want to focus on is this: The tendency to portray rather incremental progress as a great breakthrough. A common example of this tendency in biomedical research is performing a well-established type of measurement on a larger scale than ever before and advertising the results as a “great breakthrough”, sometimes codified in prizes. It is usually decent research resulting in a large and useful dataset. It also saps resources and talent away from the more creative research that is more justifiably described as a breakthrough and that is more likely to result in a non-trivial conceptual advance in our understanding. The examples of mediocre improvements of commercial technologies that are advertised as great breakthroughs are even more numerous; in fact, developed nations spend sizable fractions of their GDPs on this kind of make–believe advertisement. It is this misleading advertisement, both in basic scientific research and in commercial technologies that makes incremental, sometimes mediocre, improvements a viable strategy to achieving make–believe greatness. The more we dismiss and suppress misleading advertisement, the more we will encourage the creativity, risk-taking, and original thinking required to make fundamental discoveries and to significantly improve commercial technologies; this way we can incentivize and facilitate substantive progress.