I was reading this quite interesting article about Daniel Everett, a missionary turned linguist. He has studied the Pirahã tribe in the Amazon basin in Brazil. They are an interesting bunch (there are only about 750 of them): they have no sense of number as we do, no creation myth and no interest in talking about the distant future or past. I was struck by the following comment by Everett “This constellation of features really cried out for an explanation and, it took me about 20 years to realise that there might be a unifying explanation for all of these things ” Everett’s explanation is that there is no universal grammar. That is a pretty big idea and directly contradicts the thesis of Noam Chomsky which has been hugely influential in modern linguistics and more generally.
I have no idea who is right but what strikes me about the remark is that it took a long time for his key insight to emerge and its pretty profound. Sometimes important ideas take a long time – and a certain amount of luck. The snag is that this is not what research councils and foundations want to hear. What are your chances of getting funding for research that will take 20 years to come to fruition and may or may not come up with an important idea? Zilch. So the pressure is to come up with a constant stream of relatively minor but publishable discoveries which are necessarily somewhat predictable, even banal. Most academics have to constantly publish or be seen to be unproductive or indolent. Even the luxury of a sabbatical, when one might want to kick-back and think about some new ideas and maybe re-tool, is expected to produce some output.
In fairness to research funders, you can’t blame them for being somewhat conservative – they get hounded for not producing results quickly- and there are some initiatives to fund more risky research ventures. But, for example, research that is intrinsically inter-disciplinary is likely to continue to fall between two or more stools: although everyone talks about its importance, no one wants to pay for it. So I can’t help feeling that the really big ideas, the ones that change how we think about the world and how ultimately we do business, are not going to be supported. This seems to be the universal grammar of modern academic research.