Stimulating Innovation with Money

Periodically I read about governments or institutions wanting to stimulate innovation, often to achieve a certain (worthy) goal. Frequently, the far larger amounts of money that other countries or continents are spending on innovation are then bandied about as justification.

And I die a little inside every time that happens.

Money and innovation have a very intricate relation. Spending money is very easy, and often appears to be the only option - other ways of fostering innovation require much more coordination, societal will and fundamentally altering “the way we do things”.

So money it is.

The problem now is that money can as easily foster as kill innovation. Inventing new things certainly does require money, but sometimes surprisingly little. Some forms of innovation do set fire to piles of cash, for example a recent project that attempts to sequentially silence every gene known to science to find how this influences cancer. You’ll burn through millions and millions of lab time and reagents doing this research, and it will be worth it.

But for many other kinds of innovation, money can easily get in the way. How does that work? If money is tight, people have to get creative to achieve their goals. They might have to invent new ways of doing things to get to where they need to be.

Perhaps they’ll even have to break rules to do so, or try techniques that had been considered too risky before. Things that no one would ponder doing if they had enough money. The innovative result may not even be the original goal - the techniques to get there may turn out to be the actual fruits of innovation.

And this is great. But no new stuff would have been invented had it not not been necessary because money or resources were tight.

Anyone attempting to get innovation going by “simply” pouring in a few billion therefore doesn’t know what they are doing.

Richard Feynman who, for all his flaws, was a very perceptive person, wrote up this near perfect anecdote in “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman”. But he wasn’t.

Feynman was looking for a research department to join, and he was considering MIT, Princeton and Cornell. He particularly wanted to know about their cyclotrons.

This story is exemplary for how “doing things professionally” may actually get in your way. And, as an aside, it also illustrates the risks of perhaps doing things too haphazardly.

Here goes, and by all means buy a copy of the whole book, you’ll learn a lot:

“MIT had built a new cyclotron while I was a student there, and it was just beautiful! The cyclotron itself was in one room, with the controls in another room. It was beautifully engineered. The wires ran from the control room to the cyclotron underneath in conduits, and there was a whole console of buttons and meters. It was what I would call a gold-plated cyclotron.

Now I had read a lot of papers on cyclotron experiments, and there weren’t many from MIT. Maybe they were just starting. But there were lots of results from places like Cornell, and Berkeley, and above all, Princeton. Therefore what I really wanted to see, what I was looking forward to, was the PRINCETON CYCLOTRON. That must be something.”

In an understated way, Feynman tells us this gold-plated cyclotron was not delivering a lot of scientific value.

“So first thing on Monday, I go into the physics building and ask, “Where is the cyclotron – which building?”

“It’s downstairs, in the basement – at the end of the hall.”

In the basement? It was an old building. There was no room in the basement for a cyclotron. I walked down to the end of the hall, went through the door, and in ten seconds I learned why Princeton was right for me – the best place for me to go to school. In this room there were wires strung all over the place! Switches were hanging from the wires, cooling water was dripping from the valves, the room was full of stuff, all out in the open. Tables piled with tools were everywhere; it was the most godawful mess you ever saw. The whole cyclotron was there in one room, and it was complete, absolute chaos!”

These people were clearly constrained in space and likely also in money, but that did not stop them: they built their own cyclotron, and they were in full control of it. If there had been enough money and resources, they would’ve ordered up an MIT-style cyclotron.

“It reminded me of my lab at home. Nothing at MIT had ever reminded me of my lab at home. I suddenly realized why Princeton was getting results. They were working with the instrument. They built the instrument; they knew where everything was, they knew how everything worked, there was no engineer involved, except maybe he was working there too. It was much smaller than the cyclotron at MIT, and “gold-plated”? – it was the exact opposite. When they wanted to fix a vacuum, they’d drip glyptal on it, so there were drops of glyptal on the floor. It was wonderful! Because they worked with it. They didn’t have to sit in another room and push buttons! (Incidentally, they had a fire in that room, because of all the chaotic mess that they had – too many wires – and it destroyed the cyclotron. But I’d better not tell about that!)”

These people fully owned their instrument. It may have required more maintenance, but they could make the machine do anything they wanted. Also, it caught on fire - a relevant lesson that doing things in an unorthodox way can indeed also be dangerous.

Recovered part of the burned down Princeton Cyclotron. Source and more images

Recovered part of the burned down Princeton Cyclotron. Source and more images

(When I got to Cornell I went to look at the cyclotron there. This cyclotron hardly required a room: It was about a yard across – the diameter of the whole thing. It was the world’s smallest cyclotron, but they had got fantastic results. They had all kinds of special techniques and tricks. If they wanted to change something in the “D’s” – the D-shaped half circles that the particles go around – they’d take a screwdriver, and remove the D’s by hand, fix them, and put them back. At Princeton it was a lot harder, and at MIT you had to take a crane that came rolling across the ceiling, lower the hooks, and it was a hellllll of a job.)”

Similarly, over at Cornell they had a tiny machine, but because they had so much control over it, they could make it sing and dance. This allowed them to investigate things that other cyclotrons could not (in the same timeframe).

Meanwhile over at MIT, the very professionalism that looked so good in fact made it hard to make changes.

I hope this little anecdote shows the fraught relation between innovation and money. And while we should of course be happy that institutions want to spend money on innovation, perhaps also try to see what else can be done to create an atmosphere in which people are able to try new things and actually discover the future.