THE BENEFITS OF RISKY SCIENCE: No news can be good news for scientific progress
14 Aug 2017
Research by Professor Michael Mandler argues that scientific progress can accelerate when scientists are less than fully informed about the advances their peers are achieving. A good example is provided by the success of particle physicists in the Soviet Union during the cold war, who worked in isolation from their Western counterparts.
Professor Mandler''s study, which is published in the August 2017 issue of the Economic Journal, shows that even though isolated scientists may have to work on projects whose productivity is less promising, they are also forced to select riskier research projects. Strangely, it is the riskier scientific projects that in the long run can lead to the greatest progress.
One implication of this analysis is that more progress may be made when scientists tackling similar questions are not aware of each other''s work, something that is almost impossible when the internet allows new ideas and findings to flow freely and rapidly around the world.
The study argues that in the creation of knowledge, risk delivers an inherent benefit. If an innovative scientific project turns out to be a great success, follow-up projects will become available that also have great promise. If, on the other hand, the innovative project is a failure, then it can be abandoned.
Since there is a potential upside gain but no downside loss, greater risk brings a net benefit. This benefit is big enough that it will sometimes be efficient for scientists to skip over the projects likely to bring the greatest gains and instead undertake riskier, more innovative alternatives. For the same reason, scientists can gain from a measure of isolation since then it is harder to follow in the footsteps of the work that others are undertaking.
Professor Mandler uses the archetype of successful scientific development – particle physics – to illustrate the costs and benefits of scientists working in (a measure of) isolation. The end of the cold war allowed the world''s scientists to form a more unified community, seemingly an unambiguous benefit, but the change also brought a surprising drawback.
By the late 1960s, most particle physicists had rejected quantum field theory and instead followed the latest fashion, the ''bootstrap model''. But various camps remained out of the loop, and a group of physicists in the Soviet Union – an isolated academic island – pursued a theory of gauge fields that would eventually describe the three fundamental forces in today''s standard model of particle physics. With the triumph of the standard model, the bootstrap model faded away.
The moral of this story is that it can be valuable to have several scientific schools following different lines of research in ignorance of each other''s work. When everyone knows exactly what every other researcher is doing and they all judge the value of research projects in the same way, then the pursuit of the projects with the greatest value will lead individuals to herd, with all researchers pursuing similar lines of attack.
In those circumstances, the free flow of information can be harmful. In a counterfactual history where Soviet scientists were better tuned to Western research, the development of the standard model might have been slower.
A provocative question raised by Professor Mandler''s research is whether in our age the rapid flow of ideas via the internet might be bringing similar harmful effects. Of course, on the other side of the ledger, the internet has also delivered manifold benefits that aid the progress of science.
After analysing the drawbacks of our present system, where scientists are guided primarily by the anticipated productivity of their own research projects, Professor Mandler considers alternative ways of organising scientific research.
These include markets for the right to undertake follow-up projects and the pursuit of citations rather than anticipated productivity as a goal for scientists to follow. Citations have the advantage that scientists pay attention not only to what they accomplish but to the broader benefits their work might spark.
''The Benefits of Risky Science'' by Michael Mandler is published in the August 2017 issue of the Economic Journal. Michael Mandler is at Royal Holloway, University of London.