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No. 60: Nov-Dec 1988

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How Genius Gets Nipped In The Bud

At once amusing and tragic, the article bearing the above title treats the reader to the musings of a university researcher who has a brilliant new idea -- or so it seems to him. At first he is ready to rush to the literature and check out the idea's originality and feasibility. But wait, this groundwork will take considerable time, and the idea may turn out to be old hat. Is it all worth the risk? Will the university support research on this new untried idea? This would be unlikely since funds are thin, the idea is not part of the overall research plan, and worse yet, an enemy sits on the research fund committee. Getting external funds is impossible unless one can show that your university has enough confidence in the idea to support it financially. A way out is to publish the idea at a conference in hopes of raising interest and money. Hold it, the referees will ask why a few obvious points have not been checked out in the lab.

"Suddenly you realize that there is a far more serious problem. The current scientific system is based on the assumption that there is no such thing as a radically new idea. Each new paper is required to climb on the back of a plethora of earlier published papers, and does little more than add another layer of gloss to the cited references. Genuinely new ideas no not have a heap of existing papers to support them. This means that the standard of proof expected will be very much higher than for a typical 'me too' paper. You glance across the old medieval library and note with alarm that the bust of Aristotle seems to be laughing at you."

And what does our hero do after confronting these realities of university life? He plays it safe. He will publish a few third-rate "me too" papers every year to fill his quota and try to get his name on a friend's research grant application to show his concern for his institution's cash flow.

(Reynolds, Chris; "How Genius Gets Nipped in the Bud," New Scientist, p. 68, July 14, 1988.)

From Science Frontiers #60, NOV-DEC 1988. 1988-2000 William R. Corliss