A Research System Set Up to Fail

What Happens to People When Research Bets Don’t Pay Off?

Thomas Friedman has a solution to fix the global energy problem and boost the economy. In his latest book, Hot, Flat and Crowded, Friedman presents it succinctly: “We need 100,000 people in 100,000 garages trying 100,000 things — in the hope that five of them break through.”

When I hear about these kinds of ideas for entrepreneurship and research that we, as young businesspeople and engineers, are expected to do, I just wonder: what about the 99,995 people that fail?

Yes, I believe and understand the theory — the country need more research in more varied subjects in order to produce those diminishing marginal returns on new technology advancements. There may be few genuine breakthroughs and more incremental advances these days, but the true innovations are so large they make up for all the losses. These breakthroughs can be so great — the Internet, a cure for cancer, cheap renewable energy — that they transform our entire way of life for the better. May glory be heaped upon those who bring them unto us.

But what, Mr. and Mrs. Policymakers, if we don’t want to be part of the hoards of people who don’t succeed?

There are people out there convincing us — the graduate students that do research right now — to do things that will fail. Thomas Friedman has said as much in his twice-weekly column in the New York Times where he can hammer the idea into our heads. Politicians routinely trumpet the alarmism that we don’t have enough scientists and engineers to do our research.

According to these shameless boosters, someone else is always supposed to do the work. The politicians say the academics are supposed to do it. The academics say the scientists are. The scientists call on the engineers. And all of the older folk are waiting for the next generation of science and engineering students to rise up and save the world with technology produced from research labs.

What such a research policy lacks an awareness of is that no one wants to fail. We all want ourselves to succeed and someone else not to. Failing hurts, especially if you have a family and a mortgage to feed.

If we’re going to institute a massive (insert your tech here — energy, biotech, pharma, space, etc) research initiative, we need some way of supporting those that fail. We need jobs available for these people to have stable careers instead of squeezing the best years of their life out of grad school and dumping them to a research lab under the thumb of government funds or to tinker in one of Friedman’s garages praying for that big breakthrough. One possibility for supporting such research infrastructure is a greatly expanded network of federally supported research institutions.

We made the mistake once during the decline of the space race. In the wake of Sputnik’s launch during the Cold War, America launched its science education programs to feed into defense and space spending. When these programs became less of a priority, we saw the stomach-churning images of physics PhDs driving taxi cabs during the late 70s.

The country is in a similar situation now with energy research. The administration is looking to increase energy research spending by an order of magnitude with little thought to implementation and supporting the researchers. Meanwhile, think tanks and columnists cheer them on while politicians give their assent.

But what happens in a prolonged recession with rock bottom energy prices? Funding gets axed, business models collapse, and we — the students who drank the Kool-Aid — are back on the streets. This is what happened in the 70s. The situation may indeed be different now because of the emergence of developing nations and the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) countries, but the past offers a relevant and cautionary tale that’s discussed surprisingly little.

The organizers of Power Shift 2009 — a Washington DC summit/protest to prevent climate change through renewable energy — complained recently that there was a conspicuous lack of young scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs. Is it any surprise that scientists and engineers aren’t as excited as those who merely champion research? I hypothesize that it’s because we’re the ones who truly know how difficult the path is toward the goals talked about. When I’m trying to figure out whether it’s a good bet, the last thing I want is some dumb, powerful politician cheerleader standing on the sidelines yelling in my ear to go for it.

Entrepreneurship works on a similar principle, but it is self-selecting for people willing to do something that may fail. Government and academic labs concern themselves with more basic research, further from commercialization, and safer bets for those involved. For young scientists and engineers, the people who go into grad school, science and engineering expect to work on topics that succeed. They are told they are ostensibly training for narrow academic careers. But even superstar grad students have a tough time climbing up that ladder, and there are far fewer teaching positions than graduates. According to these supporters of research, those who don’t make it are supposed to go into these risky start-ups.

Some people don’t just want a job though. They need stability and job satisfaction. Working 40 years of a career on incremental research technology improvements that never see the light of day is not my idea of a fulfilling life. The alternative, taking inherently risky bets on unproven technologies, is just as unappealing.

Yet, this is what we can read between the lines of those that promote massive research investments. Taking such recommendations to their logical conclusion, there will be thousands and millions of such careers.

It’s a reasonable question isn’t it? Why should so many young students work in research when the likely success is elsewhere? Until the likes of Friedman and our nation’s leading policymakers actually think through the implications of their ideas, I can say without reservation to the best and brightest — stay away.

Excuse us if we’re the only ones left who can do the math.

Gary Shu is a graduate student in the Technology and Policy Program and the Department of Urban Studies and Planning.