Friday, May 20, 2011

Failure in Innovation is a Price Worth Paying

In 2007, Mario Capecchi was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine for this work on mouse genes.  But as Tim Hartford narrates, it required stubbornness to beat a system designed to minimizing losses and maximizing gains.

The US National Institutes of Health is responsible for disbursing grants using government money to fund potentially life-saving research.  It involves huge sums, thankfully and with this comes the NIH's expert-led, results-based, rational evaluation of projects which is a sensible way to produce a steady stream of high-quality, can't-go-wrong scientific research. 

On the other hand, this is a system that was designed to stop Mario Capecchi on his ground-breaking research on mouse genes way back in 1980 that involved applying targeted change to DNA.  Quite simply, at that time, this was a ridiculous idea.

You would have to read the whole article to find out how he beat the system and got it funded resulting in him getting the Nobel prize.  What is interesting though is figuring out how to make it easier for many of the other geniuses who do not have the same defiant character to be stubborn like Mr Capecchi so as not to lose precious scientific or technological advances.

What the NIH system does is sound and speaks of responsibility of using taxpayer's money.  We can all agree to that.  In fact, in these time, it is quite laudible.


Tim writes, "But it is exactly the wrong way to fund lottery-ticket projects that offer a small probability of a revolutionary breakthrough. It is a funding system designed to avoid risksone that puts more emphasis on forestalling failure than achieving success. Such an attitude to funding is understandable in any organization, especially one funded by taxpayers. But it takes too few risks. It isn't right to expect a Mario Capecchi to risk his career on a life-saving idea because the rest of us don't want to take a chance. "

Comparing the NIH way to a different HMMI program that pushes through with uncertainty and higher probability of failures, researchers found evidence that qualifications being almost similar to between the 2 systems, HMMI researchers were more likely to produce highly cited research articles and win awards.

More from Tim:

"The HHMI researchers also produced more failures; a higher proportion of their research papers were cited by nobody at all. No wonder: The NIH program was designed to avoid failure, while the HHMI program embraced it. And in the quest for truly original research, some failure is inevitable.

Here's the thing about failure in innovation: It's a price worth paying. We don't expect every lottery ticket to pay a prize, but if we want any chance of winning that prize, then we buy a ticket. In the statistical jargon, the pattern of innovative returns is heavily skewed to the upside; that means a lot of small failures and a few gigantic successes. The NIH's more risk-averse approach misses out on many ideas that matter."

So how does this idea sound to you?  

Innovation requires a great amount of courage.  Hopefully, it is something we can supply from our side so that the genius would not have to wrestle much with continuing or not.  Thus, he rewards us with a gift that we can only comprehend once he fails multiple times then succeeds even if just once.

Read complete Slate article here.