Universities have various goals: theory and experiment; science and the arts; research and education. Many of the organizational structures created for one goal are not suitable for another. The London Institute, by contrast, focuses exclusively on theoretical scientific research. It gives scientists the support and freedom to do what they do best: make fundamental discoveries.
The Institute was created from scratch in 2011. It wasn’t set up by government agencies or benefactors, but by university physicists and mathematicians who wanted to spend more time doing research.
Like most scientists, these early members started their careers doing just research. This is what they enjoyed and what they were good at. But as their careers progressed, they were obliged to spend less time doing science and more time teaching and administering. They enjoyed this less and were not always good at it. The end result of this career trajectory is that, for those who follow it, research becomes a minority occupation.
Research remains the central goal of the London Institute today. All of its members share a drive to change the world by understanding it.
Because the London Institute focuses only on theoretical scientific research, it is able to simplify the routines of research and technology transfer: the regularly encountered processes which collectively give rise to the Institute’s papers and products and grant proposals.
For example, by making all prior grant applications available to all, successful modules can be adapted and recycled. By reducing employment contracts to a single page, they can be quickly adapted. By using per diems for travel reimbursement, members can determine which trips provide value. By keeping meetings small and brief, new ones can be arranged at short notice. By removing organizational hierarchies, any two members can easily interact. By making its accountant readily available to all, financial risks within grants can be hedged.
In addition, reducing the number of required routines opens the door to faster innovation, because there are fewer ways that any one routine might be missing. This helps explain why the most innovative research centres tend to have the fewest rules.
The Institute’s considers its papers with the same esteem that an artist view his paintings. Its papers, along with the products emerging from LIMS Ventures, are what determine the Institute’s long-term reputation. Papers which stand the test of time are important, eloquent and beautiful.
Which problems to work on should be chosen with care. At Bell Labs, Richard Hamming would ask his colleagues what were the most important problems in their fields. The next day, he asked them what problems they were working on. Most of the time the two answers didn’t match. Investing time into choosing which problems to work on is essential to making discoveries fit for posterity.
The best-written papers are clear in expression and have the rousing narrative structure of a monomyth: they first create tension and then resolve it.
Aesthetics matter. Scientists seek new insights not just for their utility, but also to enrich the world of ideas, which has its own beauty. This bind between truth and beauty forms the Institutes’ motto, and the most beautiful discoveries tend to be the most far-reaching and impactful.
Many scientists think that once they submit a paper, their work is done. But this is a short-sighted outlook. The goal of science is not just making discoveries, but ensuring that others build on them. In this way future scientists may be borne aloft and see farther than their predecessors.
Just like bringing a great product to market is no guarantee that it will sell, publishing an important discovery does not assure that others will build on it.
The traditional way of marketing papers is presenting them at seminars. The problem with the scientific seminar—a centuries-old technology— is that it doesn’t scale: each one requires more travel and effort. To effectively communicate its papers, the Institute needs to reach larger audiences with super-linear scaling.
The first step to increasing a paper’s exposure is learning how to measure it. The Institute tracks digital communication channels in real time and is learning how to adjust its marketing course in response. In our increasingly visually-driven world, beautiful plots, infographics and geometric proofs are important. The Institute is making its best papers available as small books to add to their posterity.
An intelligent research organization achieves more as a whole than its members would individually. The building blocks for any research organization are the skills of its members and the routines of the organization. Which building blocks are emphasized, and how they are assembled, determines the Institute’s organizational intelligence.
About half of the Institute’s members are researchers and half are drawn from graphic design, administration, media, accounting, web and app development and journalism. The Institute works as hard to find top non-scientists as it does scientists.
The skills of these members can be super-additive only to the extent that they interact. The Institute promotes interactions by removing departments across academic disciplines. Its scientists and non-scientists are not segregated but work closely with and amongst each other.
The Institute promotes awareness of each others’ papers and grant applications. By doing so, members help each other express their ideas more clearly and provide context more broadly.
The London Institute is a private institute: it covers its own costs through research grants and donations. Because it cannot count on government assistance or student fees to mask any inefficiencies, the Institute must maintain a competitive advantage in how it organizes research. The Institute provides better value to research contractors in three ways.
The first one comes for free. Pound for pound, theoretical research is cheaper than experiment: it requires little equipment and less space. Theoretical papers tend to have fewer authors than experimental ones, further cutting the cost per discovery.
Second, the Institute operates with a lean support team, taking advantage of its narrow focus and simplified research routines. By continually revisiting research with a start-up mentality, it shuns the bureaucracy that more diffuse centres accrete.
Third, the Institute is more imaginative and systematic in how it gets grants. Instead of viewing time spent doing research and funding research as antagonistic, it uses grant writing as a way of sounding out new research directions. Winning grants is a noisy process. Rejection is more common than success, and any given result comes down to chance as much as merit. Scientists cannot control which grants they win, but they can control the quality and quantity of those they apply for. By submitting world-class proposals, compellingly written, the Institute drives its statistical returns as a proxy for actual.
The main goal of the London Institute is basic research. But for those scientists that believe they foresee a product fit for market—and, more importantly, have the drive and resilience to see it through—the Institute created LIMS Ventures.
LIMS Ventures is the subsidiary for-profit incubator of the London Institute. It helps the Institute’s scientists bring their concepts to market by providing space, services and know-how. To help turn discoveries into world-class products, LIMS Ventures has assembled a team of leading developers, designers and marketers that continues to grow.
The Institute does not lay claim to its scientists’ IP. Rather, it offers them a choice: they can go it alone in launching their start-up, or they can incubate it within LIMS Ventures in exchange for modest share capital. The point is that LIMS Ventures must establish itself as a compelling proposition to those consider it.
LIMS Ventures provides another, unexpected benefit to the Institute. By experiencing first-hand how to market products and acquire validated learning, the Institute is able to apply these same principles to marketing its scientific discoveries.
Many mathematical scientists quietly believe that fundamental and practically useful discoveries are antagonistic. Basic science is best funded by governments, with corporate sponsors mainly interested in applied research.
But recent developments have turned this logic on its head. On the one hand, government agencies are under new pressure to demonstrate the short-term impact of their investments. On the other, firms are increasingly drawn to theoretical insights to bolster their strategy, security and automated decision-making.
From its inception, the London Institute has received significant supported from defence and corporate sponsors. These include the US Department of Defense, the UK Ministry of Defence and firms in banking, consulting and energy.
Counterintuitively, corporate and defence sponsors, rather than government agencies, have funded the Institute’s most fundamental research. Corporate funding has the further advantage of being more immediate and flexible. The Institute seeks to strengthen its current corporate and defence relationships and develop diverse new ones.