Suppress innovation, but claim the credit
It is a staple of wisdom amongst many physicists that “physicists invented the web”. This is a story trotted out particularly when physicists justify their work to the outside world. A string theorist once told me that virtually all his grant applications include a paragraph that says “support fundamental research in physics – that’s what brought us the web”.
In fact, the claim that physicists invented the web is largely mythical.
It’s true that the principal inventor of the web, Tim Berners-Lee, was a programmer working at CERN, the huge European particle accelerator. In 1988 he sketched out a way of hooking up hypertext ideas, developed by people like Ted Nelson and Bill Atkinson, to the internet, developed by people like Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn. He talked the idea up at CERN for a year, with no response. In 1989 he wrote up and circulated a formal proposal around CERN. Again, no response for a year. Finally, he coded up a prototype in his spare time. In this, he actually was helped by his manager, who said it was okay if he used one of CERN’s workstations to build the prototype. It was launched to the world about one year later.
Berners-Lee didn’t succeed because CERN was doing fundamental research. He succeeded in spite of it.
There’s a point to this, aside from correcting an often-repeated and erroneous claim. Large institutions, even those that believe they are dedicated to innovation, often systematically suppress the best ideas of the people working in them. The unpredictable nature of innovation, especially many of the most important innovations, means that the institutional mission is often mis-aligned with the innovation.
The example of Berners-Lee is one of many. Think of Bell Labs lack of support for the early work on Unix. Or the way grant agencies fund focused grants in fashionable areas decided by centralized committees. After the fact, these organizations trumpet their “success”. But very often they succeed only in spite of themselves, and they frequently show no signs of learning from this fact.