Steven Wiley on scientific innovation

”[F]resh new ideas that haven't been soured by reality are always more appealing than yesterday's idea that has become a pain in the butt.”

- Steven Wiley, writing in The Scientist

Scientists often complain that ambitious, unproven new ideas seldom make the cut with grant reviewers, and that it is next to impossible to get research funded unless theories are backed up by a large number of successful preliminary experiments. Wiley, who is Director of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s Biomolecular Systems Initiative, used to agree, thinking that this imperative was “profoundly unfair”. But in hindsight, as an experienced researcher, he has come around to the grant funders’ way of thinking.

Many bright ideas, he says, founder because there just isn’t time to follow them all up; when you hit a snag, it’s much more tempting to switch to something that seems more doable. This isn’t just laziness: many great ideas falter when it becomes clear that the system is a lot more complex than envisaged, or the techniques or infrastructure needed to overcome problems are just too difficult to achieve.

At the end of the day, Wiley says, “very few innovative ideas are ever brought to the point where they have made a significant impact on biological research”, and only the most dedicated and tenacious scientists will be able to transform their brilliant innovative ideas into reality.

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