That guy is 20 years ahead of his time. He could be a flake or a genius, who knows?" Spoken by a neuroscientist about his colleague at an annual convention, these words set me thinking. What does he mean? Can anyone be 20 years ahead of time? The better explanation must be that academic science may live 20 years in the past.
This explanation rings true when we realize the pace of contemporary science: It is incremental, consensual, and expensive. Progress is slow in the mainstream. An academic scientist can take many months or even years to begin work. But the independent scientist can start up and fund a project in a few weeks.
When I say independent scientist, I mean the likes of Darwin, Mendel, and Newton during the plague years. In those simpler times, the scientifically inclined worked at home or at the monastery, discovering no less than evolution through natural selection, statistical genetics, calculus, spectral optics, and the laws of universal gravitation.
Darwin, whose date to discuss his theory with the British Royal Society was set for 1858, had his essential evolutionary concepts in place by 1838. Mendel, who published in 1866 after crossbreeding thousands of sweet peas, wasn't accepted by mainstream colleagues for another 40 years. Newton's Principia reached print 22 years after his discoveries were made while working alone at his mother's estate in Woolsthorpe, England.
Independent scientists of Darwinian, Mendelian, or Newtonian caliber, encountered socially before publishing their research findings, could speak for hours on their work. Their mainstream peers, however, would not accept these provocative findings into scientific society for another 20, 30, or even 40 years.
The tangible benefits for an independent researcher, as compared to a government-funded counterpart, can be substantial. Funds can be raised privately without tedious paperwork. Research can continue for years with no need to publish in peer journals. Proprietary research is owned outright. And importantly, nobody else can claim patent rights.
As a graduate student in 1968-1969 at the University of California, Irvine, I enjoyed the benefits of a large laboratory, working alone, with generous funding. All I had to do was invent. With my faculty adviser, Norman M. Weinberger, we wrote a series of papers announcing the co-invention of physiological remote sensing.
For me, common sense dictated that I establish a private research center in 1975. It is an independent lab from which are launched uncommon projects, the type that are "20 years ahead of their time," and which have no chance of being funded by governmental peer review. For example, in 1977 we encouraged male and female volunteers to record, at home, their moods, dreams, and sleep patterns over an extended period--weeks, months, or much longer if possible. We wanted to establish normative data on human emotions, sleeping, and dreaming outside the laboratory.
We analyzed more than 20,000 dreams, including my own, which were recorded nightly in hundreds of dream journals for more than 26 years. Reporting to colleagues at the annual Society for Neuroscience conventions since 1995, we have identified at least six complex biological rhythms, acting in combination in the synthesis of nightly dreams.
With data so provocative as these, I would have expected animated inquiry from colleagues at these conventions, where research outside the academic mainstream is reported for the first time. However, most often they claim that our research is 20 years ahead of its time; that using a home laboratory seems flaky; and that the research will be believed "when the work is repeated using 15,000 subjects, with the findings replicated by a more reputable group."
Which conclusions shall we draw for young researchers? That they forget science in the tradition of Darwin collating Galapagos notes, Mendel cultivating 28,000 pea plants, and young Newton watching apples fall and bending sunlight with a prism? Is the era of independent science over? Can anyone work outside the mainstream and be believed? Based on personal experiences and those of a half-dozen other independent scientists interviewed, I think that the future of American science now seems to be written out in timetables mailed to universities from Washington. The era of serendipitous discovery and exhilarating innovative science may be drawing to a close.
The scientific society was once a democracy. It stayed alive and flowered, thanks to the constant tension between the Darwins, Mendels, and Newtons, and institutional science. A number of us believe we can, and must, contribute from the outside to those in institutions, and still be taken seriously.
David Alan Goodman, a neuroscientist, founded the Newport Neuroscience Center, currently in San Marcos, Calif.