Big science

To win a Nobel prize a hundred years ago, you might only need a legal pad and a few pencils.

Today, it takes millions of dollars, scores of people and many years of effort.

That’s because the most straightforward problems have been solved.

One side effect of this inevitable shift is that many parts of science have become bureaucratic and industrialized. Most people who work in most organizations that do science simply do their jobs. That’s a good thing, because it can lead to coordinated, stepwise progress at scale. But it’s also a problem, because it puts a premium on being right, and creates a fear of being wrong.

But innovation–in the arts, in science, in business–is all about being willing to be wrong, because innovation requires missteps. They’re not a bug, they’re a feature.

Open systems, loosely coordinated networks and laptops are changing this. Now, it’s possible for tiny teams to have significant impacts on the entrenched power structures. As a result, the incentives shift. Now, a tiny team has little benefit in being just a cheap cog in a big system, and a huge upside for challenging conventional wisdom with new insights.