A sociological case for scientific innovation

A physicist makes a sociological case for innovation in the sciences:

So, here is a general, sociological case for why we researchers should always be ahead of our time, even at the cost of frustrating ourselves trying to solve insoluble problems. Suppose that the tank of a given field has another 10 or even 15 years of gas left in it. Why should we abandon the field and try to train our students in a different area? Good training in science doesn’t depend on the subject. But more important, why not enter a new field in which, like almost any subject in the life sciences, the time left to have fun does not have a foreseeable upper bound?…

Scientists are conservative even when their job description could be succinctly summarized as “innovator” because the culture in which we operate is chock full of traditions that represent the opposite of innovation and intellectual freedom. We are still afraid of making mistakes—even simple terminology mistakes!—even though in the age of Google those can be corrected in an instant! We are still organizing our institutions of higher learning around power centers (the departments) that are built like fortresses meant to divide people instead of bringing them together!…

In conclusion, let me offer a note of hope, but of caution, too.

Many of the scientific questions that await answers will, I hope, be solved in the second part of this century. Then, having solved the last of the big puzzles—that is, having explained the origin of life—scientists will turn their attention and the power of their quantitative tools toward explaining the sociological complications that arise when these very complex machines called Homo sapiens interact with each other. Let us hope the fruits of that research will respect the freedom of our minds—and of our bodies too!

Sounds good: a physicist arguing that once some of the big natural science issues are solved, attention should be turned to studying human interaction. However, does this suggest that the view from physics that disciplines that study human interaction, like sociology, aren’t doing an adequate job?

It would be interesting to see a companion piece here that summarizes research regarding scientific innovation: how many scientists do switch fields or even subfields of study, how many feel like they could actually do this, and what do they feel are barriers to this.

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