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Reinventing Discovery and Collaborating Minds

My work on collaboration has been greatly influenced by the Polymath project in 2009.  In the first Polymath project (there have been more since) mathematician Tim Gowers asked if there was a way for mathematicians to do research together.  He proposed on his blog to test the idea by trying to shed some light on a problem (called “DHJ” for short) he was working on. He outlined a few extremely sensible rules for how to work together, and invited contributions. The result was a major success, opening some new mathematical pathways and leading to a paper published in a very prestigious math journal under the name of D.H.J. Polymath.

Michael Nielsen on Reinventing Discovery

One of the players in the Polymath story was physicist and science writer Michael Nielsen. In Nielsen’s book from 2012 called Reinventing Discovery – The New Era of Networked Science, he takes a thoughtful, wide-ranging and very well written view of the field of collaborative science. The opportunities and problems he sees, and what he fails to discuss, suggest some wonderful opportunities for the core concepts behind Collaborating Minds.  Reinventing Discovery Nielsen cover

Nielsen looks at science and sees that the Internet has made new kinds of shared work possible. He discusses approaches that:

  • Enable scientists to contribute their special knowledge to people who need it but who don’t know them (an example is the Innocentive site and process).
  • Let researchers build on the ideas of others (examples include Polymath, the Kasparov vs. the world chess game, and the MathWorks programming contests).
  • Facilitate involvement by the general public using its pattern recognition skills (including Fold-It protein folding, Galaxy Zoo galaxy categorization)
  • Use new tools and algorithms to draw conclusions from massive amounts of data (using an example of deducing new insight from statistical analysis of Medline data without doing new experiments, and also the Sloan Sky Survey)

The barriers Nielsen sees to more collaborative work of all these kinds are the culture of science and the incentives scientists have. Scientists get rewarded by publishing papers, and believe that protecting their data is necessary to prevent theft of their ideas. Except in extraordinary circumstances when driven by funding agencies, they generally don’t share. Nor do they get credit for helping others, or for contributing to joint projects. Or for inventing tools that others can use or generating data that are helpful to others. We cannot do the best science because our culture won’t let us.

The Culture of Science is Stifling

At the same time, the same culture of science is a disaster for people in science. Booms and busts in funding lead to armies of highly trained specialists all competing for a very limited number of grants and positions. As a result, many scientists cannot balance science and the rest of life, e.g., family. People are driven to pursue “safe” work rather than pursuing breakthrough ideas with a higher risk of failure (or of learning!). The same culture that leads science to not be able to capitalize on new collaborative approaches also leads many people to have miserable lives. Not a good thing at all.

The rabbit out of the hat – an intentional community of the heart and the mind

A potential solution is the creation of a community of people who want to make an investment in pursuing collaboration as a better route to both personal fulfillment and scientific progress.  Many scientists face an extremely low probability of conventional success, so pursuing a new approach might not really be costly (just courageous).  Imagine an intentional community of the heart and of the mind — scientists who have decided to throw in their lot with others who are also committed to the success and development of their colleagues and collaborators, and who have committed to rise and fall with the others.  A minority of people from each institution has this orientation and these people affiliate with each other around a set of tools and principles for interacting and for sharing and for sharing credit (I had biology on my mind with the highly illustrative picture below). They remain at the home institutions but also have another basis of support — one that really provides support.  In this community, they have a culture that actually supports the kind of collaboration science can now use to advance.

Lots of people in collaborative group

Does somebody want to pay for this?

Maybe somebody would be willing to pay for it. The somebody would be somebody with a commitment to finding new ways of doing science that are more effective.  I wrote a few months ago about Janelia Farm, funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. They invested in a new idea there. They pay the salaries of talented researchers around the country. Perhaps they or someone like them would be interested.

Let us know what you think about these ideas.


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