Pioneering research - a risk worth taking

Pioneering research - a risk worth taking
Donald W Braben
Hoboken, New Jersey, US: Wiley Interscience 2004 | Pp 198 | ?23.50 (SB) | ISBN 0471488526
Reviewed by Michael Gross

Is science becoming predictable and boring? Does it no longer produce pioneers like Albert Einstein or Barbara McClintock who think outside of the many boxes provided for them and eventually change the way we view the world?

Donald Braben, a physicist with a colourful career spanning research, administration and industry, certainly thinks so. In this book, he argues vehemently that the growing obsession with target-oriented, focused, plannable work (which of course is necessary as well) is pushing the truly creative and exploratory science over the edge. The biochemist Howard Schachman once described this phenomenon in a diagram which I like to call the Schachman plot in his honour: he plotted funding probability against originality of grant proposals. The curve starts with a modest funding probability at zero originality, rises to a maximum at an average originality, and then drops sharply to zero where the proposals become ’too creative’.

Braben’s concern is exclusively with those ’blue sky’ researchers who fall off the sharp end of the Schachman plot. Global progress is at risk he argues, if we only pursue the kind of research that can be predicted and fitted into five-year plans. He argues that concepts like competition, efficiency, peer review and market orientation should not apply to pioneering research. Creative scientists should be unique, peerless individuals, like creative artists, not athletes in a race. A small number of them should be given total freedom to follow their ideas. In the concluding chapter, Braben writes the history of BP’s Venture Research Unit, which under his leadership strived to do just that during the 1980s, but ceased to exist in the ’focused 1990s’.

While many of Braben’s views are heretical in today’s Church of Efficiency, I for one agree with much of his assessment and recommend this book to anyone involved in or worried about science.