The tyranny of the idea in science

Jeff Leek

There are a lot of analogies between startups and academic science labs. One thing that is definitely very different is the relative value of ideas in the startup world and in the academic world. For example, Paul Graham has said:

Actually, startup ideas are not million dollar ideas, and here’s an experiment you can try to prove it: just try to sell one. Nothing evolves faster than markets. The fact that there’s no market for startup ideas suggests there’s no demand. Which means, in the narrow sense of the word, that startup ideas are worthless.

In academics, almost the opposite is true. There is huge value to being first with an idea, even if you haven’t gotten all the details worked out or stable software in place. Here are a couple of extreme examples illustrated with Nobel prizes:

  1. Higgs Boson - Peter Higgs postulated the Boson in 1964, he won the Nobel Prize in 2013 for that prediction, in between tons of people did follow on work, someone convinced Europe to build one of the most expensive pieces of scientific equipment ever built and conservatively thousands of scientists and engineers had to do a ton of work to get the equipment to (a) work and (b) confirm the prediction.
  2. Human genome - Watson and Crick postulated the structure of DNA in 1953, they won the Nobel Prize in  medicine in 1962 for this work. But the real value of the human genome was realized when the largest biological collaboration in history sequenced the human genome, along with all of the subsequent work in the genomics revolution.

These are two large scale examples where the academic scientific community (as represented by the Nobel committee, mostly because it is a concrete example) rewards the original idea and not the hard work to achieve that idea. I call this, “the tyranny of the idea.” I notice a similar issue on a much smaller scale, for example when people don’t recognize software as a primary product of science. I feel like these decisions devalue the real work it takes to make any scientific idea a reality. Sure the ideas are good, but it isn’t clear that some ideas wouldn’t be discovered by someone else - but surely we aren’t going to build another large hadron collider. I’d like to see the scales correct back the other way a little bit so we put at least as much emphasis on the science it takes to follow through on an idea as on discovering it in the first place.