Every year in October, the powers that be who award Nobel prizes get together to choose the anointed. There are prizes for literature and for economics and, in most interesting to me, several for science and medicine. It has always been my perception that those chosen to receive the science and medicine awards were selected because they contributed something fundamentally creative and new that changed the trajectory of how things are done – something, in effect, that is a “disruptive innovation” (god forgive me for using the term). In fact, the Nobel Prize organization itself says that winners will have made “discoveries that have changed the scientific paradigm and are of great benefit for mankind.” Notably, those who are impressive “for life-time achievements or scientific leadership” are not considered for the Nobel Prize.
I was thinking about this a great deal during a conversation I was lucky to have recently with David Altshuler and my intrepid podcasting partner, David Shaywitz while we were taping our most recent Tech Tonics podcast session (to be aired on or around October 7, 2019).
For background, David Altshuler is a pretty impressive dude and by dude, I mean world class scientist. He is, at the moment, Executive Vice President, Global Research and Chief Scientific Officer of Vertex Pharmaceuticals. An MIT and Harvard grad, David got his MD and PhD while training with legendary scientists like Eric Lander and Richard Mulligan. He is a professor of genetics and medicine at his alma mater of the crimson robes. He is also co-founder of The Broad Institute in Massachusetts, one of the pre-eminent medical research institutes in the world, focused broadly on the human genome and related biological systems.
During the course of our interview David talked about how, as he rose as a scientist, he was somewhat unlike the other scientists in that he wanted to focus not on what had been done and make it better, but on what wasn’t known and represented, in effect, “blue sky” areas of science. He talked about how this orientation was considered by many to be professionally detrimental; he discussed how most scientific research organizations strongly prefer a focus on expanding on what is already known to find the next layer–in effect, a sort of incremental innovation. He talked about how those who go looking for brand new science are considered risk-takers and are, generally, not on the fast track to winning grants, etc, or hanging with the cool kids (ok, that last part was my addition).
And that totally blew me away. I am not a scientist, obviously (unless you count political science), but it was my distinct impression, until this moment of clarity with the two Davids, that I found out that scientists value incrementalism over transformational research. I am sure that is a gross generalization, because we do hear about new scientific breakthroughs that fundamentally represent a shift in the paradigm, but it appears that those who come up with these are not getting invited to the popular parties at the Institute. Rather, if you are what would otherwise in industry be called an entrepreneurial risk-taker but you live in science-land, you might as well be sitting right alongside the people in the department of innovation prevention, alongside others who are generally found at massive corporations working their way out of business.
I was completely stunned by this. I know that people are people and most fear change, but I had the impression that scientists, particularly those in frontier areas of bioscience, are the maverick type, running around looking under rocks for opportunities to yell, “Eureka!” Apparently not. And while all of us love the stories about those who fly in the face of tradition and those who would say, “you are wrong” to those who say “it can’t/shouldn’t be done,” I have learned that this is not the way you pave the road to Nirvana, or at least scientific fame and accolades. Scientific institutes, it seems, struggle with the same tension between focusing on their core strengths vs looking out into the future where “blue sky” innovation can be found. The sounds that emanate from the labs of these self-same institutes are generally more “Then What Happens?” vs. “Eureka!”
It seems obvious to say that there are exceptions to this, and that was my immediate thought. “Hey wait!” I said, “No one is winning Nobel Prizes for their small incremental contribution to scientific and medical field, right?” And that is true, at least by the Nobel’s own statements. But there does not seems to be a generally accepted equivalent word for “entrepreneur” in the science world, particularly when it means someone who wants to blow up past knowledge in favor of a whole new way of looking at things.
As I sat pondering on this, I did piece together some vague memories about scientists like Galileo and Newton and Einstein being called out and harassed for their crazy ideas. Like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, these scientists stood out for what they stood for and after years of bullying for being weird, won the day. And in our revisionist history of the world of science, we say they were just early to newly discovered concepts and had to wait for everyone to catch up in order to be viewed as great innovators. Interesting. Maybe there is something to this Altshuler theory.
David (Shaywitz) and I just happened to have another accomplished scientist on tap that same day for a subsequent interview, so I decided to try David (Altshuler)’s theory out on her. Kari Nadeau, also no slouch on the science front, is currently Director of the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research at Stanford University, Section Chief of Allergy and Asthma at the Stanford School of Medicine, and an endowed professor under the Naddisy Family Foundation. Kari’s response was this, “Research is truly a combination of two words, “re” and “search”. “Re” means doing things over again and “search” means looking for things, so basically research is looking for things over and over again. So yes, I agree.” Fascinating. Incidentally, Kari’s Tech Tonics podcast episode should be out around October 21, 2019.
It is interesting to think that perhaps all people and organizations have a natural tendency to repetition, incrementalism and thinking about things from where they have been. Big companies get knocked for this constantly (and justifiably in most cases), but I haven’t really heard this on science front. Maybe it’s because that’s not where I hang out, but it’s so odd for me to think that scientific discovery suffers from the same risk of belly-button-gazing as does corporate innovation.
Industry gets stuck in a few specific tracks: people fear innovation because it will make them obsolete; they shun innovation because spending for what might be someday is harder than spending for what is measurable today; and people fear looking at things a whole new way because they may get shunned for having a big red nose, even if it will ultimately make it possible for Santa to deliver the goods. In other words, no one likes a good shaming. Are these the same things that stop many scientists and researchers from starting with a blank page, a crazy theory, an unapologetic questioning of the status quo?
Imagine what we could do if scientists were routinely rewarded for being original on a grand scale, not just for small steps forward, important as those may also be. There is recognition for this, Nobel Prize and all; but that’s just a handful of people a year. I mean recognition more broadly. For example, wouldn’t it be great if we treated the maverick scientists just as reverentially as we have come to treat the wild-eyed business entrepreneurs? For instance, we could offer them some public acclaim for fundamentally disrupting what came before them (where is the Shark Tank tv show for science?); some serious monetary compensation that rewards full-blown risk-taking in a big way when it pays off; and the pièce de résistance: special white lab coats customized for coolness by Patagonia.
What would we be able to do now if we incentivized newly minted MD/PhDs to prove entirely new theories that don’t derive directly from what others have done? What goals would we already have met? How many more people would have been saved from disease and despair? Thankfully there are people out there like David Altshuler and Jim Allison and others who buck the establishment and race to break ground in the dark and unexplored corners of biology, physics, chemistry, and all the other areas I didn’t excel in school. May you always be the Netflix to your colleagues’ Blockbuster.