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    The audacity to see a different and more transformational science

    August, 4th 2023

    For Jorge Moll, a neurologist and cognitive neuroscientist, co-founder of the D’Or Institute for Research and Education and one of the creators of the Pioneer Science program, few things are as exciting as science, especially frontier science, which holds the amazing power to radically change the way we see and understand the world – and potentially change it for the better. It can be said that frontier research is one of the great levers of human, economic and social progress. Today, as humanity faces existential challenges on multiple fronts, the need for funding and support for frontier research, also called maverick science, is greater than ever.

    The science philosopher Remco Heesen uses the term “maverick” to refer to scientists who perform research in areas that are little or not explored, which can yield important discoveries, but which involve greater risk and adventure. It is precisely these characteristics that make frontier science happen outside current paradigms and models of academic productivity and funding. That is why scientists who venture to the frontiers of science need help.

    In this interview, Jorge talks about maverick scientists, the obstacles to this type of research and how to produce a more systematic and direct effort to foster necessary scientific and technological leaps.

    Pioneer Science: First, what is frontier or maverick science?

    Jorge Moll: Frontier science asks unorthodox questions that challenge scientific beliefs and ingrained worldviews, or seek answers that many feel cannot be found with our current tools and technologies. In almost every field, frontier science is the exception, not the norm, but it holds the power to transform how we see and understand the world.

    Today, most academic science is designed to allow for safe and productive work within existing paradigms and systems. In almost all environments in which scientists work, resources are limited and researchers are rewarded for proposals that will produce publishable results in a predictable timeframe. Yes, this way of doing science is extremely important and vital for a safe and predictable development march. But it shouldn’t be the only one, as it hardly leads researchers to explore unconventional ideas, to challenge existing structures and to ask uncomfortable questions – which is fundamental for the accelerated progress of science.

    Historically, are great scientific discoveries such as those of Galileo Galilei, Charles Darwin or Marie Curie considered frontier science? What would classify these big names as mavericks?

    These great scientists are certainly the mavericks of history: they observed “anomalies” that could not be explained by theories of the time; they challenged dogmas, launched new fields and explored unknown territories, often putting themselves in life-threatening situations. Such names are almost synonymous with the idea of what it means to be a maverick. They questioned established science and plunged into challenges that seemed insurmountable.

    What kinds of questions should a scientist ask to position himself/herself on the frontier? What makes someone maverick?

    There is no right formula for being a maverick, but one of the essential factors for doing frontier science is the heterodox nature of the questions raised by these scientists: either about data that do not make sense within the dominant paradigms or about ideas that could lead science to new places. Thus, despite being diverse, the questions that build frontier science have strong characteristics that make them different from conventional scientific investigations.

    Some of these paths are to pursue unexpected and unknown territories, bring a new look to known problems and challenge hypotheses, worldviews and dogmas already ingrained. These are questions that also create convergences between different fields of science, address politically charged issues, connect new discoveries to gaps in knowledge or experimental capacity, and that generally take time to leave their mark.

    There are issues that seem fundamental to understanding human experience and the very nature of reality and which, however, are difficult to address and study. What is conscience? Why do we sleep? Is our known universe all there is?

    These questions attract many theorists, but maverick scientists look for evidence and experimental approaches that can lead to discoveries with the potential to revolutionize our worldviews.

    Recently, a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” estimated that of all the science being done in academia, perhaps 2% is frontier. What does this mean for us, as a society, in relation to the advancement of knowledge, technology and the innovation produced, today and in the future?

    It means that future returns from scientific research will continue to decline. There is a lot of evidence pointing in that direction. In addition to research and innovation suffering from this problem that is expressed worldwide, the Brazilian scenario faces much greater challenges due to the obstacles in collaboration between academia and the productive sector, which could not only attract much more resources for research, but could also help to focus efforts on new areas with great potential for both basic and applied research.

    Is it possible to do frontier science with existing research funding models? What challenges does this system impose on scientists who try to explore the frontiers of knowledge and generate changes and leaps in knowledge?

    It is indeed possible to do frontier science within existing models, but the traditional funding system and peer review judging processes can pose challenges for scientists trying to explore the frontier of knowledge and potentially generate substantial change.

    One of the main challenges is that most funders tend to prioritize projects that are more likely to succeed and have short-term academic returns, while frontier science is generally considered more risky and uncertain. Systems would have to be more accepting of the fact that a substantial portion of financed projects will not achieve the so-called “expected results”. On the other hand, they may bring null results and even “unexpected results”, which is great! Furthermore, competition for limited resources can be intense, making it difficult to obtain funding for frontier science projects.

    Thus, the main barriers to frontier science include lack of financial resources, excessive bureaucratization, lack of tolerance for failure and fear of taking risks.

    There is also the reputational risk, the fear of peer disapproval when asking questions that are less orthodox or less aligned with the norm of the specific field in which a certain scientist works. Incidentally, both in science and technology, it is said that most revolutions come from outside a certain field, from someone who, not belonging to that field, feels free to test hypotheses and models that diverge from the common thinking of the area. Those with preliminary results that are more in tune with the “status quo” end up being prioritized.

    How did you observe this during your own scientific career?

    I went to medical school to understand how the brain generates consciousness and behavior and to help those who suffer from disorders of this extremely complex and mysterious organ. I ended up researching the neural basis of moral behavior and altruism—dissident issues, especially at that time. It was only by entering the universe of scientific production, by experiencing firsthand the pressures to conform to dominant views and theories, that I realized how difficult it is to pursue some bold questions that dominate our imagination.

    Many years later, I was amazed at how little funding and support there is for researchers willing to rigorously pursue unconventional questions and paradoxes that challenge dominant paradigms. I am grateful to my scientific masters, including Jordan Grafman (cognitive psychologist, currently a researcher at Northwestern University), Ricardo Gattass (visual neuroscientist, UFRJ) and Ricardo de Oliveira Souza (neuropsychiatrist, IDOR researcher and professor at Unirio) for making me see that very popular ideas in cognitive neuroscience can actually hide a great ignorance about crucial aspects of brain functioning, and that new ideas can (and should) be tested and confronted against prevailing dogmas. This is how true science should be.

    How can this be improved using new incentive policies or funding structures?

    While the barriers to frontier science are clear enough, the answer on how to overcome them is not. It can be difficult to know which actions can make the most difference, how to catalyze collaborations and environments where frontier science can flourish. In addition, it is important to understand how to ensure that the science being supported is rigorous and ultimately replicable. A clearer set of assumptions is needed about where funder support could have the greatest impact. To help answer this, we produced the Maverick Science report, which builds a map to guide funders to generate more impact in this scenario.

    Again, suggestions to address this problem include creating specific programs for frontier science, increasing flexibility in funding criteria, and creating mechanisms to support frontier research with greater time tolerance, placing bets on the creative capacity of individuals and/or small teams of researchers, focusing on certain fundamental or applied questions.

    There are still several elements that can work in this synergy, including interaction between academia with the philanthropic and private sectors, grants aimed at emerging areas with high potential but still little explored, and flexibility in the academic and industrial hierarchy to facilitate and support young researchers at heart to develop research on frontier issues.

    Several institutions have already realized this and are looking for solutions. Universities such as Stanford, Harvard and Columbia are working with philanthropic institutions to fund in-house programs designed to provide faster, more responsive support for potential maverick projects. These are programs aimed at scientists with bold and unorthodox ideas in their initial phase – and which probably would not have funding to be developed. There are other examples, new and old and with high impact, such as Bell Labs, Weizmann Institute, Cold Spring Harbor Lab, Cavendish Lab. In Brazil, there is an excellent example of IMPA.

    In what ways will Pioneer Science act to boost the work of Brazilian scientists who are at the frontiers of knowledge?

    Today, world investment in research continues to increase substantially, while productivity continues to decline. The constant increase in volume tends to compensate for the decreasing impact of research, but this clearly creates an unsustainable situation for any economy, especially for developing countries. Truly innovative ideas become relatively rarer and rarer, in proportion to incremental ideas, leading to a productivity drop of about 7% per year. In the case of the USA, for which there is robust data, this deficit in the production of ideas is reflected in several fields, such as the agricultural sector, medical innovations, semiconductors and the reduction of mortality associated with cancer and heart disease.

    There is also evidence that research productivity decreases with the size of companies, as they adopt more defensive than proactive innovation policies in research. Thus, there are strong indications that it is not enough to increase subsidies for research productivity; it is necessary to encourage the generation of really innovative new ideas, their dissemination and potential replication and adoption by others.

    The Pioneer Science program’s mission is to encourage and support talents with an innovative spirit to pursue scientific issues with disruptive potential.

    We want to engage different sectors of society, including private and philanthropic initiatives, and thus actively contribute to the development of frontier science in Brazil. What any one of us can do as a funder will always be limited. But our actions have the power to catalyze larger changes that can ripple through culture and science systems around the world. We will all benefit from a world where scientists can explore their wildest ideas with scientific rigor.

    Check out in this infographic how to identify maverick scientists.


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