There is a nice article in Forbes which basically says that directed research is pretty much useless. Directed research is what happens when you tell researchers what they must work on, because you predict that it is what is important. The article is based on a book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Here are two great quotes from the article:
Trial-and-error has error in it; and most top-down traditional rational and academic environments do not like the fallibility of “error” and the embarrassment of not quite knowing where they’re going.
(Some years ago, I drafted a funding application where I carefully outlined what could go wrong. I was told that this was suicidal.)
It is high time to recognize that we humans are far better at doing than understanding, and better at tinkering than inventing.
This being said, I am not sure I agree with the Black swan theory. I need to think about it.
However, in research as in most businesses, it is quite clear that the willingness to take risks is an ingredient for success. As for myself, the main reason I take risks is that it is more fun. If I know I will succeed ahead of time, why bother doing the work? So that even if I never come up with a significant unexpected discovery, taking risks is still a very valid strategy.
Source: Stephen Downes.