Deepmala 42 – Risk taking in Scientific Research

In science, only those are remembered, who say either the first word in science or the last word in science. India has not done it often enough. Why? Because, among other things, we have not dared, risked, gambled or deliberately funded risky research. While I was the Director of National Chemical Laboratory, I decided to fund risky research by creating a ‘Kite Flying Fund’. I said, we will support ideas, which aim to attain some unattainable goals, meet some stretched targets, or follow novel strategies in problem solving, that have never been used before. Here the chance of success may be one in one thousand. This fund generated a lot of excitement. I remember a fierce competition among scientists, where many innovative ideas sprang up.

When I moved to CSIR, we used the ‘Kite Flying Fund’ concept at NCL to create a ‘New Idea Fund’. We invited the entire chain of laboratories to submit ideas, which had explosive creativity, and where the chance of success may again be even one in thousand. During the last 5 years we have received over 350 new ideas but we have funded only 15 of them; we are so tough on our criteria on what constitutes explosive creativity. This initiative has spurred our scientists to aim for increasingly higher level of innovation in CSIR and even individual laboratories are setting up such funds now.

Risk taking in science is very important. Therefore, auditing of scientific research has to be done difficulty. One must understand that manufacturing and S&T are two different endeavours, culturally and operationally. In manufacturing, we look for zero defects and no failures, whereas in science, there is a fundamental right to fail. An interesting analysis has been done by Stephen and Burley in 1997 for Industrial Research Institute, which lists out the significant odds facing would be innovators by analyzing consistent data from new product development, potential activity and venture capital experience. It has been shown that there is a universal curve, which illustrates the number of substantial new product ideas surviving between each stage of the new product development process. Indeed, out of 3000 raw ideas (hand written), 300 are submitted, which lead to around 125 small projects, further leading to 9 significant developments, 4 major developments, 1.7 launches and 1 success. In India, it is the other way around, since if they are abandoned at an intermediate stage, there is a risk of audit objections.

When we fund ‘futuristic research’, we are funding risks too. But many times, the view of the future is taken by extrapolating the present. This does not always work out. Indeed the ability to speculate on the future is more difficult now than ever before. Even when the pace of change was nowhere near what it is today, the forecasts made by some of the brightest minds went so wrong. Let me recall one such effort. In 1937, the National Academy of Science (USA) organized a study aimed at predicting breakthroughs of the future. Several wise statements about agriculture, synthetic rubber etc. were made. They were essentially based on an imaginative extrapolation of the present. But it missed all the things that happened. It was amusing that in their predication, there was no mention of nuclear energy, no antibiotic (although it was just 8 years after Fleming), no jet aircraft, no rocketry, nor any use of space! And these are precisely the technologies that have dominated our lives in the last few decades. I, therefore, feel that we must respect judgements of those, who are capable of exceptional flights of fancy, rather than only relying on those, who are experts in narrow areas of specialization.

On the issue of funding risky research in industry, my favourite is the company 3M. It has become a leading innovator of products, ranging from the mundane to the breathtakingly complex. This is because the company encourages risk. Take the example of the simple ‘Post-it’ notepad that is so ubiquitous nowadays. It started off as a failed experiment at making a better adhesive. If you are a company in the business of making adhesives then when you are faced with an adhesive that does not bond very well the immediate instinct would be to shelve the product as a bad ‘invention’. But not in 3M. A creative employee thought of a brilliant idea of using the poor adhesive to make easily removable note pads – the ‘Post-it’ notepad. Today the ‘Post-it’ notepad is such a wildly successful product.

We must also understand that the challenge is not only that of funding risky ideas, but also spotting and funding mavericks, who have the potential to create breakthroughs. Such unusual innovators refuse to preserve status quo. Whereas standard science management practices tend to avoid conflicts, such people create conflicts. They bring in unusual spontaneity and exceptionality to the table. Their incentives are personal and emotional. They are not institutional or financial. Such innovators are sometimes extremely intense. Great innovators like Carother, who developed world’s first synthetic fibre nylon, committed suicide. Diesel, who invented diesel engine, also committed suicide. Managing such intense and creative people requires a subtle understanding of the pain of creation that such people undergo day in and day out.

As Feynman has said, ‘whatever we are allowed to imagine in science has to be consistent with everything else that we know. The problem of creating something which is new, but which is consistent with everything which has been seen before, is one of extreme difficulty’. At the same time, the difficulty with science is often not with the new ideas, but in escaping the old ones. A certain amount of irreverence is essential for creative pursuit in science. I believe that if we promote that irreverence in Indian science, by change of personal attitudes, change of funding patterns, creating that extra space for risk taking, respecting the occasional mavericks and rewarding the risk takers, then not only will the fun & joy of doing science will increase, but also Indian science will make that difference, that “much awaited” difference.