The Underexplored Thesis
I was recently introduced to the Institute of Scientific Disruption, co-founded by my friend Moti Shatner. The institution seeks to understand the differences in scientific advancements coming from the academic world and the private sector, to accelerate the former. Discovering that there is a group dedicated to this issue brought me significant relief.
A passion for the scientific search for truth and collaborative problem-solving has always captivated me. Yet, when immersing myself in this realm, it’s disheartening to encounter an environment that paradoxically seems many times resistant to innovation and progress. Initially, the frustration felt personal, but it’s clear that others share these sentiments.
In my early entrepreneurial years, the notion of bringing in professors and university directors, presumably with higher IQs, seemed like a promising strategy for elevating the business. However, interviews and evaluations revealed a lack of preparation for a competitive landscape, displaying traits of sluggishness and ignorance. The disappointment was consistent, even when engaging with individuals from prestigious institutions, making them unsuitable candidates for even voluntary roles.
A comparison of high-tech industries and scientific research reveals divergent methodologies and criteria for success. In the realm of scientific research, a focus on rigor is critical: meticulous attention to detail, slow processes to mitigate errors, and an overarching goal often leaning toward perfection. Such caution is evident in efforts to avoid retracting scientific papers due to methodological flaws. Conversely, the tech sector’s famed “pivoting” as a mechanism for maturation finds little parallel in academic research settings.
On the other hand, the high-tech industry adopts a more pragmatic approach, operating under the belief that ‘perfect is the enemy of good.’ Here, agility often outweighs perfection, as exemplified by the ‘blue screen’ in earlier versions of Windows; Microsoft chose to seize the opportunity rather than wait for an immaculate product.
This raises an important question: could certain branches of science benefit from adopting a more pragmatic and dynamic methodology? Open-source initiatives like Linux, Apache, and GNU offer compelling examples of how a more ‘infrastructural’ approach can produce impactful contributions.
Although open-source projects have had a significant impact on society for a long time, we rarely ask, ‘Who are the authors? How often have their contributions been cited?’ Unlike traditional scientific work, metrics for assessing success in the open-source realm are often less focused on individual recognition and more on collective utility and reach.
We do not know who the brilliant engineers responsible for the iPhone were, but we do not doubt the disruption the product brought to society. The fact that so many aspects of modern innovation and disruption come from the private sector, such as the AI revolution and the first COVID-19 vaccine, should be of concern. In the absence of change, this trend will intensify, causing universities to lose relevance in scientific disruption.
It is imaginable that researchers will blame the brutal budgetary difference on the private sector. But the issue, in my perception, is systemic (cultural, methodological, etc.) and the result is financial, but not the other way around. With the challenges of the planet and modern society demanding new disruptions, we need a new scientific model to compete with the old one, something that re-energizes the sector and accelerates the pace of innovation.