randombio.com | science commentary
Sunday, April 22, 2018

Maniacs and their grand visions

Putting self-aggrandizing maniacs in charge doesn't necessarily produce innovation

A ll those stories about Elon Musk slurping through half a million dollars an hour yet producing only a small fraction of the promised electric cars would not surprise anyone who's ever worked for a self-aggrandizing maniac.

We all know the type. They promise the moon, and they're able to convince others because they're sincere. The maniacs—and I call them that affectionately—honestly believe they can deliver, and maybe they could, if their idea happened to be right. They're so good at convinc­ing others that they've convinced themselves as well. Alas, science doesn't work that way.

Elon Musk with flamethrower
Elon Musk's flamethrower

I've seen it over and over: people are blind to the challenges that people in other fields face. I remember, back when I was a postdoc, biochemists talking disparagingly about other fields, saying that this or that experiment was “just doing pharmacology” or “this is just botany.” I suppose pharmacologists and botanists were saying the same about us.

There are some smart entrepreneurs out there, but there's a whole class who are just like Elon Musk. Their strategy is (a) come up with a harebrained idea, (b) skip over all the intervening steps, and (c) success! What that actually boils down to is (1) trick an investor or the government with grandiose promises, (2) spend the money, (3) goto 1. Needless to say, this isn't a sustainable business model.

Why grandiose ideas stifle innovation

What this strategy misses is a grounding in the physical reality that others could provide. In fact, lack of grounding is the reason they became the boss: politicians, investors, and administrators often know little about the technology, but they're susceptible to grandiose promises, since that's how they got their position, and they control the funding. They think the experts have limited imaginations. And so if the expert comes up with an idea of his own, it gets squashed, thereby confirming the myth.

One organization I signed up for stopped doing innovative science in favor of a mad scheme that we were far too small to succeed at. It was taboo to question it, because doing so threat­ened the expected bonanza. So the organization went into a downward spiral that ended in disaster. The guy in charge was just following his vision, an admirable thing. But applying a corporate model to what should have been an academic project could never have succeeded.

After that boss left, we had one year before the local university was scheduled to take over our space and close it down. They planned to do what universities always do: fill the space with cronies and relatives of the bureaucrats. But in that one year, the lab exploded in creativity. In the absence of any direction, those six or seven guys brought the lab from ten years behind the field to the forefront of discovery. One year isn't quite enough to go from a dead stop to being fully funded, and a good leader would have helped. Instead somebody appointed a passive-aggressive dweeb who made no attempt to help any of them. He had no clue what anyone was doing, nor did he care, but at least he didn't stomp on their ideas.

In that short time, I've also witnessed the enormous pressure in academia to publish and get grants. I've seen first-hand how that pressure leads to publication of irreproducible results and—what is far more destructive—enthusiastic pursuit of blind alleys.

How to get innovation

When I was a kid, someone once told me about core memories and how they were such a problem for the computers of that era. So I suggested that they should use an array of capacitors, and drew a little circuit diagram on a piece of paper. This was way before dynamic RAM was invented. If I'd had some way of patenting that idea, I'd be a billionaire today.

In science, innovation rarely happens because of dogged, mindless pursuit of a fixed goal or a fixed theory. Innovation happens when you immerse yourself in the task of finding a solution to some problem. You learn how the molecules or the electrons, or whatever, really interact. You see the molecules in your sleep. And one day you notice something odd, and you suddenly realize that the original theory was completely wrong.

Peter Falk as Columbo
Oh, I almost forgot . . . one more thing

At that point, if you're not free to change directions, that discovery will go down the drain. Once I discovered a molecule that had a weird property: it killed all the cancer cells in our dish while leaving the normal cells untouched. The boss essentially said: yes, that's nice, now get back to work on your original task. The chemical was dumped into the chemical waste bin and was lost forever.

We always think it's the obsession with short term profits that kills innovation. But just as deadly is the myth that the most charismatic guy, the person with the most grandiose ideas, is the one who should be put in charge. That type of person may or may not be useful in industry, but he's deadly to science. Nothing gets in the way of his vision. His management style makes it impossible for the researchers to change direction, throw out the established dogma, and follow the newly discovered truth. Instead, they're pressured to continue focusing on the task that they quickly discover to be a dead end, because the funding depends not on discovering the real solution to the problem, but on getting the preordained solution to work.

If society wants scientific discoveries, new technologies, or cures for diseases, all they have to do is turn scientists loose and let them solve problems. To make that happen would require massive changes in how academia, industry, and nonprofits manage and fund their research.

Oh, as Detective Columbo used to say, and one more thing: take all those maniacs with their grand visions, give them nice jackets with extra-long sleeves, and lock them up someplace where they can't hurt anybody.

apr 22 2018, 7:32 am

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