Are young scientists being encouraged to emulate Michael Bay?
Bay, best known for box-office smashes like the Transformers franchise, Pearl Harbour, and Armageddon, remains the industry’s standard-bearer for blockbuster entertainment. You know exactly what you’re going to get with a Michael Bay film – explosions, hyperkinetic action sequences, and epic scale. It’s big machines, big toys, high-tech, high-throughput, nonstop razzle-dazzle cinematic cocaine. And it’s immensely profitable. Bay’s films have taken literally billions of dollars at the international box office.
In many ways then, Bay’s films feel like the current paradigm for scientific research. In the “people not projects” vogue for grant funding, young scientists are expected to present themselves as visionaries whose work will cure diseases, reap a fortune in patents and intellectual property, and use the most novel and sophisticated techniques available to the field. It’s “high impact”, “high throughput”, “ambitious” stuff, a “high risk” gamble that will transform lives, create jobs, and change perspectives.
And it is high risk, genuinely. If you’re given a budget of more than a million dollars and produce something less than sensational, then you’ve let everybody down. A visionary can’t produce something respectable; a visionary has to produce something exceptional. Is it any wonder then that there’s such hysteria about impact factors and publishing in a tiny cabal of self-declared elite journals? Being a visionary means making a breakthrough with virtually every paper you publish.
But we can’t all be visionaries. And we can’t all be doing blockbuster science. The conceptual space available for research is theoretically unlimited, but in reality it’s only the well-trodden paths that offer the requisite concentration of pre-existing knowledge, assays, and techniques that make a sensational return likely within a grant’s timeframe. Blockbuster science, like Bay’s films, has to stick very carefully to the mainstream.
Because Bay’s films are safe. He’s no idiot. He makes low-common-denominator product that is virtually guaranteed to turn a profit. (In the man’s own words: “I make movies for teenage boys. Oh dear, what a crime.”) It looks like a risk with that gigantic budget, but like all smart business, in reality the odds are stacked in the bankers’ favour. Similarly, mapping every single neuron in the human brain sounds like the epitome of scientific ambition, but in reality is simply large in scale, not in risk.
So what about those of us who don’t want to make blockbusters? Is there an alternative? Consider this:
Woody Allen has made a movie every year for the past forty years, on budget and on time. And he’s acknowledged (Woody Allen: A Documentary) that the key has been to turn – on average – a modest profit. If his film turns a small profit, then he’ll be given money to make another one. He doesn’t make blockbusters (at least, no intentionally – Midnight in Paris took more than 150 million), he makes films that interest him. And because they’re well-crafted and interesting, they often interest us too.
It’s still high risk. Working arthouse means less funding, tighter expenditure, and a much harder fight to get the money in the first place, precisely because it’s not a sure thing. In science, the arthouse approach means scrapping for every penny, but it also offers the most intoxicating promise of all – the chance to go completely into the unknown. In other words, following that romantic spirit of discovery. And that’s seriously risky. But also seriously fun.
As in film, blockbuster science rules the mainstream. But young scientists must not be brainwashed into thinking that Bay’s way is the only way to success. We can be auteurs as well.