One hundred years ago, science went through one of its golden ages, giving birth to theories that have shaped our current view of the cosmos: quantum mechanics, relativity, the structure of the atom. Today, science is broader and deeper than it was at the beginning of the 20th century, but it is also more siloed, more pragmatic, less daring. One wonders, what are the big theories of the 21st century, the new answers to old questions that could define knowledge—and stimulate technology—100 years hence?
It may be useful to think about science's recent development—from breakthroughs by individuals like Einstein, Curie, or Bohr to well-planned research programs involving teams of scientists—as analogous to companies, which start out small and innovative. Something valuable and audacious is lost when they grow into billion-dollar megacorporations. As Harvard Business School Professor Clayton M. Christensen explained in his book, The Innovator´s Dilemma, large companies tend to ignore disruptive innovations and focus on what they perceive as the demands of their current customers. They forget that real business value comes from creating new market opportunities. Henry Ford, who produced the first affordable automobile, is claimed to have said, "If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have asked for a better [or, in some versions, faster] horse." The quote may be apocryphal, but it helps to make this point: Rather than improving already existing products and services, disruptive innovators create demand for products and services that customers don't yet know they need. Such novel markets were dubbed “blue oceans” by INSEAD business school professors W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne in their book
If you wait until you're well established to do disruptive science you will spend your more productive and creative years doing incremental research.
Coming up with disruptive ideas is a job great scientists do, too. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection and Einstein’s theories of relativity are examples of blue oceans opened up by disruptive scientists. Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly difficult for scientists to practice disruptive science. The academic career puts pressure on immediate results, continuous publication, and countless academic and administrative duties, especially early on. Meanwhile, there is little incentive for scientists to be ambitious. Increased specialization of scientific research, pressure to pursue mainstream topics, and the difficulty of obtaining grant money for the most audacious projects encourage scientists to focus on the incremental.
We need cumulative science. Gaps need to be filled. Questions others asked need to be answered, t's need to be crossed and i's dotted. But incremental thinking is unlikely to get us far in addressing the biggest challenges that we face today. From clean energy to malaria, from climate change to safe water for all, we need our best scientists to think up disruptive ways to expand our toolbox and provide radically new solutions.
So, how do you become a disruptive scientist?
Of course, personal predisposition plays an important role. Some people are by nature more critical, creative, and bold than others. But there are things we can do to improve our ability to make fundamental advances. Here are some practical tips:
• As a student, take courses outside your major subject. Whatever your “second passion” is, spend some time learning about it. If you don't have one, find one. Steve Jobs dropped out of Reed College after one semester but stayed around long enough to attend a course in calligraphy. Jobs once said, “If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts"—features that made Apple unique and attracted legions of customers.
• If you’ve just graduated, hop around the world for a year. Traveling to faraway countries with little planning and lots of curiosity is possibly the single most powerful learning experience. Later in life, repeat the experience as frequently as you can, even if it's only for shorter periods. On your next vacation, visit a country with a different tradition, culture, and language. Talking to people who don’t share our deepest beliefs and priorities is mind opening. There is also a benefit in putting yourself in situations where finding a solution requires determination, flexibility, empathy, and patience: getting a hotel room without knowing the language, or moving around a country without train or bus schedules.
• Make a point of cultivating variety and fighting inertia. Work schedules, family commitments, and other responsibilities make many days a mere repetition of the day before. The most interesting thoughts and learning experiences usually take place outside your comfort zone. Try activities you think you will enjoy but never had an opportunity to try. Use your free time more efficiently so that there's time left over to bring some novelty and creativity into your programmed life.
• At work, most scientists talk mainly to other scientists, and most of the time those scientists are from the very same discipline. Join a sports club or attend community events. Spend time talking to people with backgrounds, interests, and jobs as different as possible from science. Find out what they care about, how they learn about their subjects, how they solve problems, and what their main challenges are.
• Another way to encounter new ideas and perspectives is to read widely. Most people visit the same Web sites, read the same sections of the same newspapers, and buy books from the same area in the same bookstore. Add new interests. Ask friends, family, colleagues, and other acquaintances to recommend favorite books, Web sites, or movies.
• Similarly, when you read scientific journals, spend time finding out about other people’s research, especially research beyond your discipline. Read the news section of journals and keep a close eye on controversial topics: synthetic biology, metabolic engineering, the use of nanomaterials in medicine. This is where new and exciting knowledge is likely to develop. Keeping track of how society reacts to certain scientific topics could help you anticipate what societal needs and concerns should be addressed.
• Attend interesting conferences on topics outside of your field. At the international conferences you go to, attend one or two sessions outside of your area. Approach people you don’t know during lunch and at coffee breaks. Ask them about the problems they are working on.
• When working in the lab, try to prove yourself wrong. If your idea is not working no matter how hard you try—and even when it is working—challenge your hypothesis. Assume your initial assumptions were wrong. Plan and execute your work accordingly. This will help you brainstorm new ideas, get new data, and increase your probability of success.
• Ask yourself, "What do I really want to contribute to? What big problems do I want to solve?" and then work hard to make them a reality. You are more likely to make an impact if you work on something that is important to you.
For young scientists in particular, disruptive research is not an easy path to publications, grants, or peer recognition. So, in the early-career stages, it is sensible to have one conventional project where you work hard to get the results you need for your thesis, postdoc, or grant while spending some of your time on an ambitious, high-risk project. Over time, you can increase the time you spend on high-risk projects and start to develop a longer-term vision.
But do not wait too long. If you wait until you're well established to do disruptive science you will spend your more productive and creative years doing incremental research. And most likely you won't change tracks once you are established.
The support of your supervisor is essential, as it can be difficult to distinguish a wacky idea from a brilliant one. Do not choose your adviser solely on the size of his group, grants, and track record. Choose a person who is open-minded, not averse to risk, and will give you leeway to explore side projects. Konstantin Novoselov discovered graphene while doing “a Friday night experiment;” such experiments were encouraged by Andre Geim to get his lab members to try crazy ideas. The two shared the Nobel Prize in physics in 2010. Whatever your crazy idea, get the support of your adviser to help you do solid and rigorous work.
If you are a project leader, you can do several things to help scientists working with you become more disruptive. Build a culture of respect and tolerance for others’ backgrounds, opinions, and individual qualities. Encourage critical thinking by challenging the most accepted ideas and asking others to challenge yours. Run constructive and well planned lab meetings with substantial time and attention spent on new ideas and projects. Recognize people's successes and contributions. Allow and encourage your researchers to spend a small percentage of their time pursuing novel ideas. To maintain its competitive edge, Google allows its engineers to spend 20% of their time on pet projects. Some of the most successful products launched by Google in recent years are the fruit of those ideas.
Over the last decade, Google has been one of the most innovative companies in the world, but now they are large and established. Like many large companies, they promote disruptive innovation in an effort to avoid being overtaken by smaller, more creative companies. How successful they will be at resisting the lure of safety remains to be seen.
Many of society’s most urgent problems cannot be solved by improving technologies we have today. We need bolder solutions and radically new ideas. These won't be found in crowded ponds but in unexplored blue oceans. We need a new generation of disruptive scientists, the kind of really creative people who can imagine such new places and transport themselves—and us—to those places.