The risks of taking risks

If there is one overused idea voiced by foundations and charities supporting disease-related biomedical research it is that private funding should preferentially fund “the risky research.” I am never sure what this phrase means, particularly as I often hear it used to describe efforts to support ongoing work in fairly mainstream research questions.

In reality, I think any organization supporting disease-related biomedical research is already taking a certain kind of risk. The risks are not that the work will not get done, or that papers will not get published, or that the idea will turn out to be wrong. The risks are that the research will get done, the papers will be published, and the idea will just join the thousands of other unusable pieces of information biomedical research generates by the reams. The biggest risk of all is that we really do not learn anything new.

Questioning the status quo and funding the development of heterodox ideas is risky. There is the risk that the status quo is right. There is the risk that the orthodoxy is correct. To me taking this risk is worth it. You may actually generate a new idea. At the very least you may find out the new idea is not as good as the old idea. But at least you learn something.

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