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We All Get to Choose: Do We Encourage Originality or Conformity?
“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny…’” said Isaac Asimov, capturing the importance of maintaining an open mind and following our curiosity. Indeed, many of our most critical developments have come not through incremental steps along a planned development but by questioning our basic assumptions and seeing what lessons come out of it. As Carl Sagan put it,
“We are rarely smart enough to set about on purpose making the discoveries that will drive our economy and safeguard our lives. Often, we lack the fundamental research. Instead, we pursue a broad range of investigations of Nature, and applications we never dreamed of emerge. Not always, of course. But often enough.”
Yet too often we close ourselves off to these discoveries. We avoid investing in the unknown and the risk of unexpected results, preferring to follow familiar and proven paths.
As we push for assured results — and punish delayed gratification — we trade the ability to chance major breakthroughs for the predictable slog of guaranteed incrementalization. And we get behavior that’s derivative, not innovative.
A model that we drastically need to change. Or live with the results.
The Downside of Punishing Risk
In 1975, Senator William Proxmire, a fiscally conscious Democrat from Wisconsin, awarded the first Golden Fleece Award to the National Science Foundation for spending $84,000 on a study on love. Proxmire would continue to award his golden fleeces to those projects he considered to be the “most outrageous examples of federal waste.”
Throughout his 13 years bestowing the award, some of the 168 recipients included studies to compare the aggressiveness of fish and rats after drinking tequila and gin, a study by the Department of Defense to determine if people in the military should carry umbrellas in the rain, and a Department of Justice study to better understand why prisoners want to escape from jail.
It’s easy to get on board with fiscal accountability. No one wants to have their tax money wasted. And Proxmire, who was inducted into the Taxpayers Hall of Fame for his efforts to curtail government spending — yes, apparently there is a Taxpayers Hall of Fame — did succeed in driving greater fiscal scrutiny and restraint.