Secrecy and isolation: the formula for innovative science?

Professor cites Soviet achievements as evidence of how detachment from mainstream scholarship can foster innovation

August 8, 2017
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Secrecy and isolation can play a positive role in the development of science, a professor has claimed.

Michael Mandler, professor of economics at Royal Holloway, University of London, cites the achievements of researchers in the Soviet Union as evidence of how detachment from the mainstream of scholarship can help to foster innovation and creativity.

Writing in The Economic Journal, Professor Mandler says that scientists nowadays “have come to learn the results of their peers’ research with less and less delay”. But, while this development “might appear to be unambiguously good”, since it enables researchers to build on past successes, “the free flow of information also brings negative externalities that can overturn this optimistic scenario”.

Along with the internet, changing geopolitical factors have freed up the flow of information, and Professor Mandler’s paper illustrates why this is not wholly a good thing.

“By the late 1960s,” he writes, “most particle physicists had rejected quantum field theory and instead followed the latest fashion, the ‘bootstrap model’.” The main exception was a group of Soviet scientists cut off on an academic “island” beyond the Iron Curtain who “continued to pursue a theory of gauge fields that would eventually describe the three fundamental forces in today’s standard model of particle physics. With the triumph of the standard model, the bootstrap model faded away. The moral of this story is that it can be valuable to have several scientific schools following different lines of research in ignorance of each other’s work.”

Asked to elaborate, Professor Mandler stressed that freer communications have many benefits for science, but that “the role of the paper was to open the door to the negative possibilities, which aren’t so obvious”. For society as a whole, the ideal is “a world where everyone takes risks, so you can follow up the successes and abandon the failures”, he said. For individual academics thinking of their careers, however, “the temptation is to follow in the path of something that is already a great success”.

So what can be done to mitigate some of these “herding” effects?

Professor Mandler admitted that “it is not an option to weaken the internet” nor was he “in favour of re-establishing the Cold War”.

Yet his paper suggests that, in the absence of secrecy and isolation, there are still a number of factors spurring people to strike out on their own. Researchers’ commitment to “citation maximisation” and editors’ desire to “shepherd articles into publication that will be cited extensively in the future” could both be helpful. More surprisingly, there may be something to be said for “scientists who cagily refuse to discuss their work; even if motivated by paranoia, their secrecy can foster the initiation of new lines of inquiry, a socially productive goal”.

To illustrate the point, Professor Mandler cited the case of Sir Andrew Wiles, who worked for years on his celebrated proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem without telling virtually anyone else. The advantage of such an approach for the researcher, he said, is that “you get to publish more of the follow-up work yourself and so you’ll get more of the credit”. Yet this could still be good for science as whole, since “if a researcher wasn’t sure he or she would get all the credit, they might not bother to do the work”.

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