The following is a special contribution to this blog by Michael E. Gorman, a Professor in the department of science, technology, and society (STS) at the University of Virginia. Mike recently completed a rotation as a program director at the National Science Foundation, and co-funded a workshop on transformative research that took place in Washington, DC, last month.
During my two-year stint as a rotator at NSF, I looked for places where I could add value. There was a lot of discussion about transformative research and even some special funds that could be used for projects deemed transformative. In September 2007, the National Science Board (NSB) ”unanimously approved a motion to enhance support of transformative research at the NSF.” The Board noted:
“The term ‘transformative research’ is being used to describe a range of endeavors which promise extraordinary outcomes, such as: revolutionizing entire disciplines; creating entirely new fields; or disrupting accepted theories and perspectives — in other words, those endeavors which have the potential to change the way we address challenges in science, engineering, and innovation. Supporting more transformative research is of critical importance in the fast-paced, science and technology-intensive world of the 21st Century.”
And it recommended the following addition to the NSF’s merit review criteria: “To what extent does the proposed activity suggest and explore creative, original, or potentially transformative concepts?”
In a January 4, 2007, talk, Transformative Research: The Artistry and Alchemy of the 21st Century, then-Director of NSF Ardent Bement, Jr., emphasized the way in which NSF works on the frontier where transformations are most likely to occur, but also recognized that we will:
“continue to quibble among ourselves about the meaning of ‘transformative research’, which as yet has no universally accepted definition. That is just as it should be. When concepts as complex as ‘transformative research’ are still emerging, we need to practice a kind of ‘constructive ambiguity’. Doing so will give us the flexibility to incorporate new knowledge and fresh perspectives as they arise; in other words, leave room for discovery. In that way, we can make course corrections along the way, adapt to changing circumstances, and remain open to diverse suggestions about the issues.”
I am a social psychologist of science and engineering who worked in NSF’s Science Technology & Society (STS) program and with the Science of Science and Information Policy (SciSIP) program. I knew these programs had expertise that could be brought to bear on this problem, so I catalyzed a workshop organized by Robert Frodeman and Britt Holbrook of the University of North Texas, co-funded by STS and SciSIP. [Many thanks to Julia Lane of NSF's SciSIP program for her help vetting the proposal and co-funding the workshop (NSF award #SES-1129067). Any opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed here are mine, and do not necessarily reflect the views of NSF or any of its employees.]
Workshop participants included 25 invited practitioners and scholars from a wide range of disciplines: engineers, historians, philosophers, and science policy. Former and current NSF officials and representatives of other government agencies attended parts of the workshop.
The discussion was wide-ranging and deep; no simple summary will do it justice, nor was there a consensus. Alternative courses of actions included:
- Convince the NSF drop the transformative criterion. As a basic science agency, the best way for the NSF to ensure transformations is to fund what Kuhn called normal science, and wait for anomalies to appear. Then perhaps the NSF could target research towards anomaly resolution, which might lead to the kind of revolution Kuhn talked about, creating a new paradigm.
- Liberate the NSF from worrying too much about the definition of transformative. Keep it flexible and a bit vague while making the benefits of transformative research clear. The NSF could provide exemplars of previously funded work that turned out to be transformative.
The context of use should be included in transformation — a discovery can be transformative in terms of science but not use, and a discovery that is not transformative scientifically can be a catalyst for transformative innovations. Perhaps it would be better to substitute innovation for transformation.
Transformation occurs across an ecosystem — or parts of an ecosystem that many have broader or lesser impacts on other parts over time. Transformative research is part of a reframing of the scientific ecosystem, including research practices, research frontiers and potential applications.
Peer review may hinder transformation, because peers tend to reflect the existing paradigm. One indicator of a potentially transformative project may be a bi-modal distribution in peer reviews, where some see the transformative potential in the work and others regard it with horror — not on grounds of expertise, but because the new idea is incommensurable with existing thinking and practice.
One alternative to peer review is a sandpit process which was used by the NSF and the U.K.’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to catalyze and fund transformative ideas in synthetic biology. Participants from multiple disciplines evolved ideas for transformative research over several days. Program officers picked several ideas from among those that emerged and invited proposals on them, with the understanding that the proposals were likely to be funded.
In the peer process, reviewers that typically come from the same research community are critically reading and evaluating proposals. In the sandpit, researchers from multiple communities share ideas and look for possible collaborators — and are told that transformative ideas are a priority. The sandpit process looks like a better bet for producing potentially transformative work.
The fact that the sandpit is deliberately interdisciplinary is one factor that increases its transformative potential. Combining two or more disciplinary communities on a new project is likely to produce a result that will appear transformative from the standpoint of any of the disciplines of origin. The further apart the disciplines, the more likely a sandpit discussion will produce work that is potentially transformative. Consider, for example, combining participants from social sciences, ethics, environmental science, computer science and civil engineering to develop new ideas on sustainability.
Interdisciplinary review panels are often formed at the NSF, but a proposal then has to satisfy all of the disciplinary reviewers — work that builds off all of the disciplines in the panel but transcends them — may fare worse. It would be good to do empirical work comparing sandpits and review panels and varying whether each was done within a single research community or across several. Which approach would be most likely to lead to transformative work?
The kinds of centers created by the NSF and other organizations could be catalysts for transformative research, especially if the right administrative infrastructure were put in place, one that encourages and supports radically interdisciplinary collaboration based on a solid foundation of disciplinary expertise. Again, empirical work could be done on the right sorts of structures.
The NSF has an important education mission as well, both in schools and universities and in informal settings like museums and social media. Given the emphasis on evaluation by disciplinary standards, it is harder to promote transformative thinking in formal education than informal. But there are lots of interesting options within formal education, e.g., interdisciplinary capstone projects and curricula.
The kinds of new scientific and engineering instruments placed in such centers and in national labs can also lead to transformative work by making it possible to explore and manipulate new aspects of the universe. Information technology has enabled many of these instruments and allowed them to be connected globally. IT has also enabled collaborations that have a global reach, and even virtual centers. Computer scientists not only do transformative research, but they also enable it in multiple fields of endeavor.