If you think – as many people in our increasing managerial culture do – that the process of scientific discovery can be speeded up by focusing on the application as a goal and ignoring “curiosity-driven” research, then you are wrong. In fact that very phrase, “curiosity-driven research.” was introduced fairly recently by unimaginative bureaucrats as a deliberate put-down. Their desire for tidy projects offering guaranteed short-term profit is much too simple minded, because goal-oriented research can deliver only predictable results. You have to be able to see the goal in order to aim at it. But anything you can see, your competitors can see, too. The pursuance of safe research will impoverish us all. The really important breakthroughs are always unpredictable. It is their very unpredictability that makes them important: the change out world in ways we didn’t see coming.

Moreover, goal-oriented research often runs up against a brick wall, and not only in mathematics. For example, it took approximately eighty years of intense engineering effort to develop the photocopying machine after the basic principle of xerography had been discovered by scientists. The first fax was invented over a century ago, but it didn’t work fast enough or reliably enough. The principle of holography (three-dimensional pictures, see your credit card) was discovered over a century ago, but nobody then knew how to produce the necessary beam of coherent light – light with all its waves in step. This kind of delay is not at all unusual in industry, let alone in more intellectual areas of research, and the impasse is usually broken only when an unexpected new idea arrives on the scene.

There is nothing wrong with goal-oriented research as a way of achieving specific feasible goals. But the dreamers and the mavericks must be allowed some free rein, too. Our world is not static: new problems constantly arise, and old answers often stop working. Like Lewis Caroll’s Red Queen, we must run very fast in order to stand still.

Pages 28-29, Nature’s Numbers, © Ian Stuart, 1996

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.