What if tech stagnation, declining growth rates, and the near-inevitable seeming collapse of the West are all because we got worried a few scientists would run off with our tax dollars?
That’s the broad thesis behind Scientific Freedom: The Elixir of Civilization. Published originally in 2008, Scientific Freedom chronicles the journey of physicist Don Braben, as he designs and builds a Venture Research arm at British Petroleum in the 1980s. Braben was successful in funding a transformative research initiative at BP (transformative meaning it fundamentally changes humanity thinks about a subject). In his estimation, 14 out of the 26 groups funded made a transformative discovery, at the cost of only 30 million pounds over 10 years! A few examples of transformative discoveries made by groups funded by Braben in his time at BP are:
So how did Braben fund proposals, if he didn’t use peer review or grant proposals?
Don quite literally tried to “eliminate every selection rule imposed since about 1970 that appeared to stand in the way of freedom.” Don valued building a relationship, talking with the researchers, to determine whether or not they were of sufficient caliber to make a transformative discovery. Don and his small team were the end all be all. If Don got to know you, was impressed by your work, and thought you were working on something that was challenging and transformative, you got funded. Braben’s conviction was what mattered, and he got results. He understood how difficult it would be for some of these folks to get funding (because of peer review). Don minimized overhead and administration by having minimal staff. For advertising, he would travel from university to university giving talks. He aimed to get to know the researchers at a personal level so that trust and rapport could be built in a way you can’t do with a large funding agency. There was very little structure-no deadlines really to speak of, no reports to generate, just science.
In Don’s approach, he never told anyone “no”. If he thought someone was a quack (for instance, if I claimed that I had disproven super-string theory with only knowledge of calculus), he would kindly probe deeper. ”Will, you say you’ve disproven super-string theory, can you tell me how.” Don wouldn’t tell me to buzz off. For a bumbling or nonsensical answer, he’d just tell me to come back when I had more. This practice let Don filter out fakers, without filtering too aggressively for ideas that might be true, but not accepted by the wider scientific community.
On a practical level, Venture Researchers would be funded for 3 years at a time. Support could be renewed and often was. On renewal, the director of the research program simply asked themselves whether what they were wanting to do was still challenging. If it was, the program got renewed. In this paradigm, trust between funder and scientists was paramount.
Don is not egalitarian in his approach. Transformative Research not a program for everyone. He aims to fund researchers who can make the kinds of discoveries that are paradigm shifting for humanity. Perhaps only 100 or scientists in a generation can make the kinds of paradigm shifting impacts Don is interested in finding. These scientists are what Braben refers to as the “Planck Club,” or the group of elite scientists who make the most notable discoveries of a given century. Here Don describes the early 20th century Plank Club:
The twentieth century was strongly influenced by the work of a relatively small number of scientists. A short list might include Planck, Einstein, Rutherford, Dirac, Pauli, Schrödinger, Heisenberg, Fleming, Avery, Fermi, Perutz, Crick and Watson, Bardeen, Brattain and Shockley, Gabor, Townes, McClintock, Black, and Brenner (see Table 1). However, I give this list only to indicate something of the richness of twentieth-century science. I wrote it in a few minutes, and it obviously has many important omissions. Other scientists would doubtless have their own. If the criteria for inclusion were based on success in creating radically new sciences, or of stimulating new and generic technologies, a fuller list could easily run to a couple of hundred.
The biggest breakthroughs often take a long time, and come from people with interests in all kinds of weird areas. Planck, perhaps Don’s favorite example, took 20 years working on Thermodynamics, and would never have made it if his research had been put under the pressure modern researchers are put under. Scientific Freedom, letting people work on their ideas without constraint, is essential to producing the kinds of discoveries the Plank Club made. In essence, Braben is allergic to bureaucracy.
One of the frustrating things for Braben, is the relative cheapness of Venture Research. In fact, if you believe Braben, the world is leaving trillion-dollar coins on the sidewalk:
The likely costs can be estimated using back-of-the-envelope figures. Let us assume that there were about 300 transformative researchers — the extended membership of the Planck Club — during the twentieth century. Let us adopt a rule of two by which we increase or decrease cost estimates by a factor of two whichever is the most pessimistic. Allowing for inefficiencies, therefore, let us increase the target number of transformative researchers we must find to 600 — that is, six a year on average over the century. This is a global estimate, but for a TR initiative in a large country such as the United States, then, according to our rule of two, we assume that all the new members might have to be found in that country since it is home to about half of all R & D. If we also assume that the searches will be about 50% efficient, which Venture Research experience indicates would be about right, it would mean that a US TR initiative should find some 12 transformative researchers a year. (For comparison, a maximum of nine scientists can win the Nobel Prizes each year). TR is the cheapest research there is, as it is heavy on intellectual requirements but relatively light on resources. For Venture Research in the late 1980s – early 1990s operating in Europe and the United States, the average cost per project was less than £100,000 a year, including all academic and industrial overheads. Costs have gone up since then, so for our present purposes, we might double them to, say, £200,000 or $400,000 a year per project on average.
Transformative researchers should be supported initially for 3 years. Our experience indicates that about half of them would require a second 3 year term; and half of those, a third term of support. Very few projects should run for more than, say, 9 years. Those leaving the TR scheme either would have succeeded and been transferred to other programs created for them — that is, their research would actually have been transformative — or, the scientists agree that they had probably failed in their Herculean quests. However, these average figures are quoted for guidance; there should in fact be no hard-and- fast rules on the length of support. Remember Planck!
This sum should also be the steady total thereafter. As we have chosen x to be 12, after 9 years, therefore, a TR research budget (i.e., excluding overheads such as the initiative’s administrative costs) would be some $25 million a year. If it turns out to be significantly more than that, the initiative would be tackling a different problem than TR. After the first 9 years, the TR initiative would have backed some 108 projects, of which according to our experience about 54 should eventually turn out to be transformative in some way.
A TR budget for a smaller country — say, the United Kingdom — should be about half that of the United States, or $ 12.5 million per annum. The Venture
Research budget in our final year of operation (1990) was some $ 5 million, two-thirds of which we spent in Britain. As we had been operating for 10 years, it is possible that we had identified most of the researchers in Britain looking for potentially transformative research support at that time.
That’s only $25 million a year in inflation-adjusted cost for a small country like the UK. They probably spend more on staplers!
Pre-1970’s, research was much smaller than it is now, and it was the norm that scientists could work on their problem of choice, without too much bother or oversight from their overlords. No moloch could touch these angels of knowledge, their tendrils of curiosity reaching out over nature, unencumbered by peer review.
Before 1970 or so, tenured academics with an individual turn of mind could usually dig out modest sources of funding to tackle any problem that interested them without first having to commit themselves in writing. Afterward, unconditional sources of funds would become increasingly difficult to find. Today, they are virtually nonexistent.
For Don, this change precipitated a decline in our ability to create breakthrough research. Peer review snuffed out all the weird people following their interesting passions. Instead of cool wacky scientists, we got salesman-scientists in suits. As people who can’t get funding say, “That dog won’t hunt.” There is a possibility that this change has precipitated our relative stagnation. Bureaucracy, and a lack of scientific freedom, the ability to get a small amount of unconditional money to follow your research interests, means that we don’t get a Planck Club for the later half of the 20th century. Technology is the child of science, and if science is sick, maybe it makes us worse at creating the kinds of technology that keeps our world progressing towards a brighter future. Braben believes that although we have gotten many advancements in recent memory (the book was originally published in 2008), most of these are technologies leftover from the harvest of the early 20th century of research. This is important (and I think scores points for Don) because this gives him the title of being one of the earlier “alarm bells” of secular stagnation/decadence/tech stagnation in our society. Here, Don talks about the gift of the discoveries of the Planck Club:
“This prodigious progress came from our growing ability to harvest the fruits of humanity’s intellectual prowess — scientific endeavour, as it is usually called. Material wealth continued to accelerate through most of the last century despite financial crashes and global wars. But then gradually, around about 1970, signs of major change began to emerge. Science’s very success had unsurprisingly led to a steady expansion in scientists’ numbers. That could not continue indefinitely, of course, and the inevitable crunch came when there were more than could adequately be funded. This was not only a numbers problem — the unit costs of research were also increasing. The funding agencies should have seen this coming, but they did not. Indeed, as I shall explain, many today do not accept this version of events and are thereby contributing to one of the greatest tragedies of modernity. This perhaps surprising statement arises because the agencies’ virtually universal response to the crisis was to restrict the types of research they would fund. Thus, to use a truly horrible word, they would prioritize, and focus funding on the most attractive objectives — that is, objectives the agencies perceived to be the most attractive. Thus, for the first time since the Renaissance, the limits of thinking began to be systematically curtailed.”
Thanks to that precious gift, and despite the havoc of world wars, financial crashes, and a threefold rise in population, per capita economic growth soared in the twentieth century, reaching a peak, coincidentally perhaps, around about 1970. It then began a steady decline.
Why hasn’t Venture Research caught on? I can only speculate, but I think letting folks run wild is not something that scales. Don might respond that it’s perfectly okay that it doesn’t scale-venture research is not for everyone, it’s just for the select members of folks who have the capability to make transformative discoveries like the ones that belong in “The Planck Club.” It is important however, that someone is doing this kind of science funding.
We’ve many more researchers now than in the past, and there are simple bureaucratic reasons why oversight has become more important than research results. It’s like building a vaccine-if you are a regulator, you don’t get points for the hundred of thousands of lives you save, you only get punished if 365 folks get guillain-barré from your vaccine. The first researcher who gets public money, and spends “a little too much time down in Aruba” makes the front page of the Times, and the whole funding program is toast. On the bright side, it truly doesn’t take much money to set up a venture research unit, and it’s something that a rich tech founder could easily fund (Patrick Collison, are you still with me here?).
Scientific Freedom, for Braben, is something akin to the air we breathe. It’s essential, but less obvious that water, health and security. It’s tough to notice how important it is when you have it, but you sure as hell start to notice when it’s gone. With it, society prospers, and we continue to find our own century’s “Plank Club,” without it, we stagnate.