Uncovering nature's deeply held secrets
The overriding philosophy of the laboratory is that science is essentially simple. Although intricacy is undeniable, the foundational principles are ultimately simple, and if a mechanism appears complicated — if you find it difficult to understand — then it is probably not because you are inept, but that the foundational “principle” on which it is based may itself not be correct. Sound mechanisms rarely rest on shaky foundations.
The work of the laboratory has been oriented toward uncovering those fundamental principles. We target areas in which understanding seems too complex to be valid and penetrate — or at least we try to penetrate — toward the core of truth. Often the ideas that come out of these excursions are controversial, as they inevitably upset the status quo, sometimes at its very core. Hence, the reactions range from non-printable expletives at one extreme, to enthusiastic comments such as a recent one about our findings on water: “the most significant scientific discovery of this century” http://www.i-sis.org.uk/liquidCrystallineWater.php.
Challenging staid dogma with fresh ideas that explain more is a core element of the scientific enterprise that been progressively eroding. Science has become increasingly conservative. Challengers are viewed with suspicion, the prevailing response being something like: your idea cannot be right, for if it were, certainly someone would have thought of it earlier. This attitude has permeated the granting systems, which have become conservative — a problem now broadly recognized.
This laboratory began challenging both the NSF and the NIH systems a decade ago, to open their doors to ideas that challenge mainstream views. Initial efforts consisted of letter-writing campaigns organized to alert the granting agencies to the seriousness of the problem. Out of these campaigns came the NSF “Frontiers in Biomedical Research” program, and an NIH workshop that eventually led to the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award. A paper describing some of the proposals is available in a paper entitled: Revitalizing Science in a Risk-Averse Culture: Reflections on the Syndrome and Prescriptions for its Cure (Pollack, 2005).
More recently, I served as an external advisor to the National Science Board (which governs NSF) in their task force on transformative science – whose recommendations led to a dramatic increase of transformative programs at NSF. The term “transformative” now runs deeply through the Foundation. Similarly with the NIH, I was the main academic speaker at 2007 workshop on “Fostering Innovation” which was attended by top NIH administrators and a panel of distinguished scientists including two Nobel Laureates. The 40-minute talk offering various remedial solutions, some radical, can be found at http://videocast.nih.gov/Summary.asp?File=14189 starting at 1:17. Again, recommendations from this workshop and others, including one on the peer-review system, have begun opening the NIH to be more receptive to transformative ideas.
Despite these gains, still, the problem is not yet solved. The main obstacle to the hoped-for scientific revolutions is the culture: the entrenched orthodoxies feel it is not in their best interest to entertain views that challenge their long-held beliefs. Hence, challenges are ignored or repressed, no matter how promising they may be. If revolutions are to happen, it will be necessary to get the attention of the leaders of the prevailing scientific orthodoxies. Some mechanism needs to be put in place to make sure that happens.
For this purpose we have recently (Summer ‘09) proposed to President Obama that he set up the Institute for Venture Science. This $4B per year institute is designed to support so-called “high-risk, high-return” research that has the potential to turn the scientific world upside down. The letter to President Obama outlining the rationale for this approach (with numerous endorsements) is available here, as is the detailed proposal for the workings of the Institute.
We are hopeful that the Institute for Venture Science will become a reality. With NSF and NIH programs opening their doors increasingly to transformative ideas, and the IVS investing heavily in the most promising of those ideas, science may once again become the richly exciting and fruitful enterprise it once was. Huge changes may be in store.