A conversation with Michael Doser on how the importance of finding funds for grassroot projects.
Michael Doser comes to IdeaSquare to work on his ATTRACT-funded project O-possum II, Positronium surface-scanning microscopy. “Even though I’m not currently using any of IdeaSquare’s tools or devices right now, I just love IdeaSquare's mindset when it comes to science”, he says. According to him, “not many institutions are ready to encourage people to come up with crazy ideas —but IdeaSquare does”. If he had a magic wand, he would “turn IdeaSquare into a kind of ‘super high-tech Fab Lab’, get wildly experimental and pay for experts that could run its technologies for me.”
“The good thing about IdeaSquare is that they let you ‘play’ with technologies until you figure out by yourself how they work.”
Michael Doser is a fierce supporter of crazy, experimental ideas, or, as he clarifies, "of finding innovative applications of cutting-edge technologies". He brings the example of the United States, where “people are ready to try things despite being almost certain to fail”. “Such early-stage experiments are usually not expensive, and in the US nobody holds it against you if you fail”, he explains. “This attitude allows you to re-do your experiments again and again. In Europe, however, you must first prove that your hypothesis is going to work before even applying for a grant”. That frequently leaves scientists with only one option: You can only write grant requests for things that are almost certain to work out. “Unfortunately, this gives you little room to try anything new”, Doser concludes.
“Funding agencies in Europe will only give you money once you have a proof of concept. If you are at the stage where you are trying something from scratch and hoping to find promising results, you will find little options in current grant applications.”
Doser knows what he’s talking about. “For example, in the United States, the quantum sensors experiments are searching for dark matter particles by looking at superconducting materials which can be pushed a little bit further, that is, to the edge where they stop being superconducting. That means that, if you have a particle that interacts with your material and it pushes over this edge, then you can detect it. Nobody's looked there yet, and we would certainly like to try this out —but where to go?”. As he very well illustrates, “if you don't run the risk of failure, you're just incrementally improving what you already know and don't come up with innovative concepts”.
Luckily enough, IdeaSquare does embrace this “brainchild of having a ‘free-for-all’ of crazy ideas”, he resolves. “Markus Nordberg is a visionary when it comes to giving scientists the opportunities to explore fuzzy front-end ideas”. He refers to ATTRACT, the European project: “Up to today, ATTRACT has been very successful because it covers projects on a timescale of 1 to 3 years, which is the usual timespan you need to find out whether your hypothesis will work out or not”. Indeed, if you look at what has come out of ATTRACT so far, it has been “extraordinarily interesting” in many cases.
“ATTRACT's underlying philosophy is to encourage people to come up with crazy ideas —however germinal they may be— and this can certainly only be done at IdeaSquare.”
Michael Doser is a research physicist at CERN working towards measuring the gravitational interaction between matter and antimatter within the AEgIS collaboration group. He is also a member of several international advisory committees, physics conferences and workshops. With the aim of bringing Physics closer to multidisciplinary students, Doser also holds regular interventions and presentations in Art or Art-Science events. At IdeaSquare, he works on O-possum II, Positronium surface-scanning microscopy, an ATTRACT-funded project.