The structure of humanity’s quest for knowledge has reached a stage of unprecedented complexity. Research communities are part of a complex network of interconnections of people, ideas and knowledge, institutions, journals and books, and sources of funding. Knowledge is used for practical needs, but also for purposes ranging from entertainment to forging a sense of humanity’s place and purpose in the universe.
The work of previous generations has placed in our hands a remarkable toolkit for advancing knowledge—the ability to measure hitherto elusive physical, biological and psychological processes, the internet to share vast quantities of information, computational machinery and algorithms to explore this data and extract knowledge from it, and, finally, people—educated, curious, with time to pursue knowledge.
Our task is to make the wisest use of these resources to create and disseminate knowledge. What do we know about how best to do this?
In working our way toward an answer to this question, we will need to answer several others. For instance:
- What does previous experience teach us about whether a research area can be profitably pursued? Are there clues to indicate when a breakthrough is imminent?
- Can one quantify how to determine whether someone is well-matched to a given problem? What information goes into forming the optimal team of researchers for a problem? Are there objective criteria for choosing collaborators?
- How should a researcher optimize his or her career trajectory, so as to maximize opportunities for intellectual growth? For example, RAND designed software for a branch of the US military to use in officer assignments so as to maximize production of personnel whose cumulative experience qualifies them for high-level positions.
- How best can a researcher determine whether there is a tool or technique already in existence that is relevant to a problem they are interested in? What infrastructure and system of knowledge representation makes it most likely that researchers will find the tools they need?
- What features of the structure of the body of researchers in a given field and of the research being done, might indicate that a field is in a period when it is poised for a major advance or when, conversely, the field is in a period of relative stagnation?