Innovative and Transformative Research Defined

Science progresses in two fundamental and equally valuable ways. The vast majority of scientific understanding advances incrementally, with new projects building upon the results of previous studies or testing long-standing hypotheses and theories.

This progress is evolutionary — it extends or shifts prevailing paradigms over time. The vast majority of research conducted in scientific laboratories around the world fuels this form of innovative scientific progress. Less frequently, scientific understanding advances dramatically, through the application of radically different approaches or interpretations that result in the creation of new paradigms or new scientific fields. This progress is revolutionary, for it transforms science by overthrowing entrenched paradigms and generating new ones. The research that comprises this latter form of scientific progress, here termed transformative research, is the focus of this report.

In practice, distinguishing between innovative and transformative research is difficult at best and, some would argue, only possible in hindsight. Indeed, the two forms of scientific progress do exist side-by-side and, often, proceed hand-in-hand and overlap each other. … Undoubtedly, there are many pathways to transformative breakthroughs. (Our) report, however, is interested in a particular pathway — in our view, the one less traveled. This pathway is marked by its challenges to prevailing scientific orthodoxies. Albert Einstein, Barbara McClintock, and Charles Townes are just three modern examples of scientists who chose this path. Their discoveries, and many others, not only fundamentally transformed science and engineering, but also shaped the quality of our lives by paving the way for new frontiers and new technologies in industry, in commerce, and in national security. Although defining such breakthroughs is difficult, attempts to do so are not in vain because history unequivocally records the essential benefits to mankind.

The underlying concern of [our report] is that failure to encourage and to support revolutionary ideas will jeopardize not only our nation’s ability to compete in today’s and tomorrow’s global economy, but also the progress of science as a whole. This concern is articulated best in the much publicized and widely heralded 2005 report from The National Academies’ “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future.” The authors identify factors that contribute to the United States’ eroding competitiveness in the global economy; the recent decline in support of “high-risk or transformative research,” particularly in the physical sciences, engineering, mathematics, and information sciences is identified as one major factor. The authors state that “reducing the risk for individual research projects increases the likelihood that breakthrough, ‘disruptive’ technologies will not be found — the kinds of discoveries that yield huge returns.”

… Although basic research that has the potential to be transformational is inherently less predictable in its course and eventual outcomes, it is, nonetheless, absolutely essential for our national advancement and for the advancement of science as a whole.