This reminds me of an opinion piece by Lee Smolin (from the perimeter institute in Waterloo) entitled "why no new Einstein?". In it Lee argues that the funding structure discourages risk taking, innovation and creativity:
"It is easy to write many papers when you continue to apply well-understood techniques. People who develop their own ideas have to work harder for each result, because they are simultaneously developing new ideas and the techniques to explore them. Hence they often publish fewer papers, and their papers are cited less frequently than those that contribute to something hundreds of people are doing."
Have things gotten worse with time? Was it really better when Einstein was around? Is it that we do not make new Einsteins, or are they not able to do their work?
This letter in response to Lee Smolin's OpEd paints a pretty bleak picture:
"Then there was DP. Not as bright as SJ, he made up in diligence and creativity what he lacked in brilliance. He gained admittance to a master's and then a doctoral program at a less prominent, large, research-oriented university. Despite having to support himself with part-time jobs, DP excelled in his doctorate, enjoyed the graduate experience, and produced six papers, most as a first author. He then became a postdoc in a well-funded laboratory associated with a famous research site. There he turned out five more papers in just three years—again, most as a first author. DP then looked for employment in physics, and received a single tentative offer, whose financing fell through. Disgusted, he left physics never to return."
This letter sums it even more colorfully:
"Today's scientists are jet-setting, grant-swinging, favor-trading hustlers looking for civil servants who will provide them with a pipeline into the US Treasury. Not only do they get peer pressure to behave this way, they also get arm-twisting from the academic bureaucracy that wants to get its 50% to pay for its bloated overhead. You can't be a used-car salesman and have deep thoughts about the structure of the universe at the same time. You've got to move product—in the case of scientists it's reports and journal publications—and keep moving it even after tenure removes some of the pressure. As for the assorted Beltway Bandits (private industries fulfilling government contract work), some of whom are quite talented, there is no tenure, only the next contract."
If creative young scientists do not get a chance to get a research job, if even established scientists are not given the support to pursue creative ideas, surely that will stifle innovation!
Perhaps innovation will come from unexpected places such as China. I was recently talking to a Chinese grad student. If you think you've got it bad here, think again. He told me of labs where 25-100 students is not uncommon and competition is fierce, where grads work everyday from 8am to midnight, and every weekend. Where he gets paid so little he can only afford the cafeteria meals and shares a room with 4 other students with a rent of $200/year. Yet they have huge modern science institute with top of the line equipment. Which means if we cannot compete in quality, we've already lost in quantity.