My friend Ben Reinhardt (see TiB 125
) has a great post
on the design philosophies of research funding organisations, a favourite TiB topic. He starts by noting that two pieces of conventional wisdom about research seem to be in tension: on the one hand, great research requires a high degree of intrinsic motivation (and hence freedom
for researchers); on the other, research management
(i.e. somewhat reducing freedom) matters a lot. Ben spends the rest of the post reconciling those positions and laying out some of the ways that the great research organisations of the past have dealt with the tension (Bonus: if, like me, you’re a sucker for a 2x2 diagram, it includes a very good one
I’ve thought a lot about this problem because a version of it comes up a lot in building any sort of programmatic support for entrepreneurs (as I do in my day job
at Entrepreneur First). Great founders, we generally assume, don’t need or want to be told what to do, so what use is a programme? Ben provides one*
very good answer: “
context changes the types of ideas people have”.
In other words, one useful function that a programme like YC or EF is to make a particular kind of ambition legible
(See also my essay on the history of ambition
). The existence of startup investment programmes therefore increases the supply of entrepreneurs.
In the same way, the “bat signals” (see last week’s TiB
) that the design of research organisations send up will profoundly shape the supply of researchers:
in a world where research is funded through broad grant calls to PIs for them to pursue specific projects where the the majority of work is done by grad students and which are judged on their scientific contribution and publication record, you’re going to see a lot of ideas that appeal to broad grant calls that can be done by grad students that are seeking publishable scientific contributions
… and of course we should hope that new kinds of research organisation can increase the supply of the visionary, risk-taking scientists we need (and that we’ve talked about a lot in TiB - see TiB 103
, 165 186 211
, among many others). How to do this is not a fully solved problem, but as Ben shows, the history of the space suggests some interesting starting points.
*There are certainly others - not least creating “scenius”, as we discussed in TiB 116 and 129 - but alas I’m out of space to discuss them this week!