Should You Follow the Science Fashion of the Day?

5. October 2012

Arti Agrawal

I want that gorgeous Chanel bag. I do!

Is there any logic behind it? While I’m not sure what’s behind my urge, I suspect that Chanel has it down to a science (and art)!

Surely the fashions sold to us are not merely the unfettered creative output of talented designers? I believe there is plenty of science behind how trends change and how new products are introduced to the market. As this blog post from IonPsych explains, designers may even draw on optical illusions to create clothes that help elongate the body or emphasize flattering aspects of a person’s figure.

So if fashion follows science, does science follow fashion?

After all, we’ve all seen that certain “hot topics” in science often crop up that attract the attention of policy-makers, grant-giving bodies, journal editors and reviewers. And the work done in these areas tends to get more funding, publications and attention than that in less “fashionable” ones.

The advantages of channelling resources into trendy areas is that it allows us to rapidly develop technology in strategically important areas and to realize a quick potential return to taxpayers, investors, industry and the public. With limited funding resources, it is essential to have a method of prioritizing.

On the other hand, some areas can get over-funded at the expense of other deserving options. Trendy science can cause us to neglect promising potential developments and restrict creativity and diversity in thought.

Science is frustratingly enigmatic: We can't always predict which seemingly obscure development or outlandish piece of research will lead to a fantastic new technology or product that changes our lives. Nor can we be sure that the hot area that many work on will deliver the goods on schedule.

This fickle quality is what makes science so exciting to work in. You can’t really know what the work of today will create for tomorrow.

Take photonics for example. It has many applications and is often thought of as an enabling technology. In my view, the current trend is largely to focus on experimental work. Theoretical ideas are sometimes regarded with a jaundiced eye in the peer review process: If you can't or haven’t fabricated a prototype or demonstrated your predictions, reviewers and editors cannot be easily convinced about the potential of the idea.

But look at how the laser came to be. The principle behind this transformative technology was published years before the first prototype was demonstrated. Today lasers are everywhere: in our printers, DVD reader/writers, medical equipment, industrial equipment. It is nice to see that Charles Townes, whose early work led to the laser, was recently recognized for taking risks when he received a “Golden Goose award,” which was intended to highlight how federally funded research that once seemed pointless can ultimately transform society.

Would this wonderful idea have survived the peer review of today?

Another example is that of left-handed or negative index materials. The concept of a negative refractive index was predicted by Veselago in the 1960s when no experimental verification of the concept was possible: Fabrication was not feasible with the technology of the day, and no known examples existed in the natural world.

Yet the work was published. Moreover, since the 1990s, it has led to a huge research effort globally. By now, everyone has heard of metamaterials! Whether these exotic materials will give us the breakthroughs that researchers expect remains to be seen.

And so I feel we need to encourage a more balanced perspective—and resource allocation—and not lean too heavily in any one direction, lest we ignore incredible ideas that can transform science.

Arti Agrawal (arti_agrawal@hotmail.com) is a lecturer at City University London in the School of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences. To follow her personal blog, visit http://artiagrawal.wordpress.com.

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