The Wizard's Warning

Once upon a time, just over a hundred years ago, a wizard addressed a large gathering of industrial and scientific leaders. Drawing on his 20/20 foresight, he described the powerful discoveries that could enrich the coming century. "Your current language is inadequate,"

By | September 27, 2004


Once upon a time, just over a hundred years ago, a wizard addressed a large gathering of industrial and scientific leaders. Drawing on his 20/20 foresight, he described the powerful discoveries that could enrich the coming century. "Your current language is inadequate," he said. So he conjured visions of energy quantization, relativity theory, atomic and nuclear structure, quantum mechanics, and molecular biology to give some impressions of the sciences that might come. With mounting excitement, he outlined some of the magical technologies that might accompany them: magnetic resonance imaging and a wealth of other medical diagnostics, lasers, nuclear power, computers, and genetic manipulation.

The audience was quite literally spellbound. They had expected him to talk about developments in electric and steam power, hydraulics, and oil and coal technologies. This was totally unexpected. When he had finished, someone asked what had to be done to make these fantastical things happen. His reply was equally stunning. "Nothing," he said.

His voice began to quiver with emotion. "Humanity has been given the priceless gift of creativity, but it's vital that you understand how it works. Creativity is the essence of the human spirit, and flowers best when it's unconstrained. If you try to control it for your own ends, you must learn that you can get only what you ask for. The unexpected will not arise. You are not wizards." These last words came in an intense growl. Then he disappeared, and I woke up.

Pure fantasy? Well yes, but the fable is not all that fabulous. After Robert Solow's Nobel Prize winning discovery that technical change is by far the most important source of economic growth, we can understand why the productivity of every person on the planet increased in real terms during the 20th century by a factor of 4.3, even though global population increased three-fold. However, as the figure shows, increases in real productivity have slowed substantially. Between 1951 and 1974, the average increased by 2.8% per year. From 1975 to 2001, it was only 1.4%. What is happening?

Until about 1970, creativity was managed as the wizard would wish, and its harvest was as rich as he promised. However, fueled by success, the number of scientists increased beyond what could be fully supported. Politicians responded by insisting that publicly funded research is the best possible value for money. Many private funders followed suit. Thus, progressively over the last three decades, research has focused on the targets consensus deems would have the most industrial, scientific, or social benefit. Little funding remains for anything else.

The life sciences have had enormous progress in laying foundations such as the genetic code, and a vast compendium of data is available on a wide range of biological systems. But progress has become linear and predictable. Magnificent techniques such as gene sequencing and the polymerase chain reaction have transformed research. The sequencing of the human genome was a tour de force. But, as in other fields, there's a dearth of new in-depth understanding. Many profound questions remain unanswered, and some would say that they tend to be ignored, along with the wizard's warning.

We don't need a revolution to put things right, but we must find ways of releasing the few Einsteinian scientists from the mind-numbing bureaucracy of recent times. The most important of these is peer review, that highly dispersed, latter-day inquisition for the defense of orthodoxy to which every scientist today must submit before a step can be taken.

Venture Research International1 is one such way out of the bureaucracy. We had to find sponsorship, of course, and in 1980 British Petroleum (BP), with the daring once typical of great companies, commissioned us to tackle that very problem. BP gave us complete freedom. So, we scrapped all current selection procedures and derived the simplest set that we thought would have the wizard's approval. They worked very well, launching many scientific breakthroughs that peer review considered worthless. Unfortunately, in 1990 BP caught that dreadful corporate disease, core-businessitis, which makes companies concentrate exclusively on their most successful products. We were closed down.

We're still searching for a replacement. Sponsors must have the wizard's approval, of course, if we're to reap the unexpected benefits of this century. But enhanced prestige will follow, along with fabulous rewards for the adventurous!

Don Braben is chairman and chief executive at Venture Research International and visiting professor at University College London.

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