Taking risks for a brighter tomorrow

Chillin' with Vinton #FatherOfTheInternet
When I attended the Emerging Researchers National Conference in DC last February, Vinton Cerf, one of the "fathers" of the internet, gave an incredibly inspirational speech about his journey through life. He humorously opened up with, "Well, I'm not sure what you all would love to hear from an old fart like me," with a playful attitude that eased the tension in the banquet hall.

Regardless, as I paid close attention, my heart began pounding and my feet tapped when I realized Dr. Cerf used to work with Dr. Geoffrey Fox, a physics professor I used to work under. I began to think, "Oh man! We share a network connection! I'm not sure what that means or if that's special, but I bet he'd be super impressed if I told him that I used to work with Dr. Fox!"

As Dr. Cerf spoke about his undergraduate years studying mathematics at Stanford to the revolutionary discoveries that would lead him to work on the biggest and brightest projects of the future (including, well, creating the Internet), he remained nobly humble, yet confident about himself. He would constantly describe moments in his life when he would almost refuse teaching positions at universities as he felt as though he couldn't see himself doing such an amazing thing, but also situations in which he would fight against criticism to push forward the "next big thing," whether that was Massive Online Open Courses (MOOC's) or the beginnings of the telephone.

One thing Dr. Cerf repeatedly emphasized in his talk was the importance of taking risks. Risk-taking seemed like something a mostly-undergraduate audience could get easily behind. Who wouldn't want to tell the starry-eyed dreamers to do things that might have horrible consequences? We've become so used to getting ourselves hurt in everything in we do and say in our two decades of experience that to do so in science, as well, would be a synch!

After Dr. Cerf finished his speech, I leaped to the microphone in front of the audience in preparation to ask him a question in front of the rest of the attendees. I could feel the strengthened vibrations of my heart against my chest like a train plowing over several lives in a twisted version of the Trolley problem. I desperately wanted to tell him about my work with Dr. Fox, but also ask an intelligently formed question that would help the rest of us learn something and maybe even get Dr. Cerf to remember who I was.

When it came my turn to ask a question, I introduced myself (making sure to name-drop Dr. Fox and appreciate Dr. Cerf's praise that I was working with such an amazing scientist) and asked Dr. Cerf how we could improve the credibility of online courses. He responded that we could improve credibility by improving quality, and, though many have criticized online courses as a failure, that doesn't mean anything about the future of learning when we come to accept it.

I walked away from the moment buzzing with hype. I couldn't believe I had actually talked to one of the fathers of the Internet! Not only that, but maybe he'll remember me or something.

But, while I wondered how amazing a mind it really took to make a difference in the world, I couldn't help but wonder, how important is risk-taking for scientists (but also for the rest of the world)?

As I looked around, I realized there may be signs that risk-taking is more important now than ever.

Many have lamented the loss of innovation in scientific research. Michael Hanlon, London-based science writer, pines the days in which scientists and inventors made revolutionary leaps and discoveries in the mid-20th century. In the post-WWII decades, we saw televisions, the Internet, space initiatives, environment-friendly revolutions, globalization, branching aviation, progress for several subjugated groups, and even the discovery of DNA. The future was beautiful and bright, and fears and worries were far. But, things have changed since then. Many of our scientific endeavors have lead us to false hype, such as the claims made in Neuroscience research or the lack of discovery by the Human Genome Project. Theoretical physics research has remained in the "doldrums," as political activist Ron Unz puts it, with the recent discovery of the Higgs Boson particle being something that we've already known to exist (but only empirically confirmed) and the talk about the 2014 smoking-gun Cosmic Inflation discovery being, well, just dust. Meanwhile, our generation's innovations of social media encourage conformity and groupthink while student activism has reduced to attacking free thought and silencing dissenting opinions necessary for social progress.

Similarly, Roberta Ness, Vice President for innovation at the U Texas School of Public Health, says universities have abandoned the glorious luxury of risk. Ness has spent much time encouraging researchers to take innovative research that, though prone to failure, can overturn whole scientific paradigms, expand assumptions, and change points of view. But, with the slowing of innovation, it might be time for us to re-evaluate our tendencies to avoid risk.

Have we truly lost innovation at the cost of risk-aversion?

Researchers Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tvserky would say that we, human beings, are naturally loss-averse. We like to weigh opportunity costs for different actions and choose ones in which there are low chances of bad effects. That's why we might avoid listening to new music when we already know which ones we like, and that's why it's very difficult for us to understand how we're much more likely to die in a car accident than a terrorist attack.

Others would say that our emphasis on immediate, tangible results blinds us to greater discoveries we can only realize through risk-taking. And we want to make sure we see the benefits that are most important and easiest to get. But, with the mind-blowing amount of knowledge and information there is, it's far too difficult to discern which results are actually most important to us, so it might actually be better for us to focus more on identifying what types of results we could obtain from our efforts, rather than pushing the status quo of results we've already obtained. In other words, we should always be looking at how important our results really are rather than accepting that what we're already doing is most important. In his 1945 report "As We May Think," Engineer Vannevar Bush wrote about the need to get scientists "most conducive to the creation of new scientific knowledge and least under pressure for immediate, tangible results."

But why are we so risk-averse? Risk-taking poses a lot of threats to ourselves. We worry about dangerous outcomes, and, if our current techniques have been working, why switch to something new? It seems ideal, practical, and efficient to avoid taking risks. But these claims miss the mark of the nature of risks.

Being risky doesn't mean being stupid.
One things' for sure, we need to clarify that taking risks isn't about doing things that are dangerous or have high rates of failure. Rather, we need to be mindful of more abstract, unknowable benefits from the things we do. The future is riddled with randomness, uncertainty, and chance, but we should embrace what we can to account for those discrepancies rather than avoiding them altogether. This means taking into account outliers, hindsight bias, and limits of what we know.

We shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking our lives can be written into narratives or completely told by science. As economist Nassim Nicholas Taleb puts it, "Scorn of the abstract causes us to favor contextualized thinking over more abstract matters." Taking risks should go beyond what dice rolls and calculations, but we should actually be aware of the context in which we make predictions about the future. By this, I mean that, if we understand probability and risk-analysis through economic and scientific theories, then we should take into account the epistemological grounds on which those theories were conceived and the nature of their phenomena before applying them to different situations.

We can't assume that, just because one scientific research method has been giving us results that we should stop taking the risk of considering other research methods. We shouldn't become so caught-up with the immediate, seeable results that we forget about the uncertainty of the grounds on which we based them. And, with all the factors we can account for, taking risks would probably be something that's, not only good for us, but necessary for improvement and innovation.

As undergraduates, we dream big. We're idealists, hoping to be innovators that can launch the next biggest start-up, discover the next theoretical physics model or invent the sexier cell phone. If there's one thing in the future that we're going to change, it should be risk-taking.

Maybe risky business is just like uncomfortably asking a question to a well-established professional. Just because it's dangerous doesn't mean it isn't good for you.