Revolutionising R&D, Science and Technology through geek principles

Today I attended the Astellas Innovation Debate at The Royal Society in London – their glorious ignorance of panel and participatory diversity aside, it was a fascinating conversation and an interesting bunch of people: not my usual crowd, (apart from a couple of familiar faces there because of their Academic standing, not their day jobs).

The subjects up for debate were:

How do we innovate in a time of austerity?

Are we doing enough to nurture innovators of the future?

You can watch all the action here if you fancy. You can see why I wanted to go, this was totally my bag, baby.

I chose to listen rather than tweet (for most of it!) and I am glad I did as it was remarkable how similar the discussions about the challenges facing science and medicine(s) reflect almost perfectly the issues we try to address in the great programming discussions of late. The conversation did focus very definitely on scientific research and medicinal science over and above anything else – particle physics was mentioned, as were lots of very medical terms. But essentially the issues seem to come down to:

  • VCs will not invest in Science research as there is no 3-5 year return – expect 20 years but probably 40 (someone mentioned that we are only really now able to properly scale and utilise the discoveries of Watson and Crick)
  • R&D budgets are being slashed
  • Corporate Labs are disappearing
  • Not enough money spent on education at University level (I would add that this is true at all education levels, and the general consensus was that this is so – but I was not able to comment or ask questions so let’s pretend I did)
  • Apparently there is a survey that says that 49% of kids ages 7-18 are bursting to study Science/get a job in Science and Technology – this survey was quoted a lot but I am afraid I cannot find it on the website :/ if I find it I will post it here – but I do query this percentage

It was not the debate I was expecting but, as I listened to them speak, the similarities with the stuff I do, lobby for, represent and try to resolve seemed so clear that I started riffing on whether the solutions in the geek world, could help.

DISCLAIMER: I am not a scientist, I am not an academic, I have no idea whether this is already being done, but no one in the room mentioned it, except for my favourite panelist: Professor Paul Boyle who mentioned open principles and social innovation. (He later confessed to not wanting to sideline the panel). I am just saying what I would have loved to have said in the room.

1. Money

The fact that everyone agreed on was that VCs would not invest in research that would only yield profit after decades, so they were all looking for alternative routes to fund. I say take the hacker mentality.

Do the research, discover little things, then share them on an open repository, such as coders do with GitHub. The smaller discoveries can then be ‘forked‘ by other scientific researchers, shared and so on and so forth; so that there is as much value in the sum of the parts – and more quickly-realised benefits – as there is in the eventual cure for lung cancer (or whatever the greater intention may be).

This seems to me like something that VCs would feel more able to fund, and could really escalate the speed and number of discoveries and innovation.

I asked the community on twitter if there were such a thing and was pointed to the following:

taverna.org.uk

http://arxiv.org

The Dart Project

figshare.com

Synapse

And finally everyone said why can’t GitHub do the job?  I suspect they could, but they are not set up to now and I was pointed to this blog post that explains why it is not really fit for purpose, but again there is still debate raging in the Internet about some of these facts.

All of those links are not quite what I mean. But there is something in all of them that is useful.

Maybe we can set this as a challenge at the Wellcome Trust: Open Science hack event, perhaps we can start there.

This brings me onto hack events. I believe that the hacker way of breaking and remaking, building solutions and failing forwards until they find something that works is something the (non-computer) Science community could benefit from. We will see at the Wellcome Trust hack and I will write more on this. Hack days and modding (modification) series are a great way of kickstarting R&D and building working prototypes at a relatively low cost: thousands not millions, nor even hundreds of thousands. In Rewired State we are doing exactly this in our commercial work, feel free to ask me questions!

A dying community – how to bolster the numbers of kids choosing science

In spite of the quoted research that I cannot find, in my experience children are not inspired by the sciences in school. They may love Prof Brian Cox, Dallas Campbell and Kevin Fong – maybe – but they do not see themselves as growing up to do that, in the main. (The science bit, not the telly bit). One audience member whose name I did not catch had a good theory on this, he pointed out that all children studying art, drama, textiles, languages, maths all get to be creators, to make something entirely new, be that prose, or a sum or a fabulous piece of art for themselves, in science (and this was also true for ICT) they just get to recreate stuff that other people have already done. It’s not fun, they can’t create in senior school.

And so we come to the same problem facing ICT education in this country. Fixing the exams to include coding and computational thinking is not the magic bullet. We *must* address this in junior schools: Year 8 is too late, and we must invest in better University Science degrees. Focusing on GCSEs, EBaccs and A levels is too long a road to achieve anything of worth in our lifetimes, it has to happen YES but it will yield in 20+ years. It really cannot be more simple for the educators, and they are doing wonderful things to address this and I have enormous faith and respect for the work they are doing.

However, it will not be fast enough to be ‘VC-fundable’ nor even a good enough argument for the public purse in straightened times, but that is why things like Young Rewired State and its equivalents are so important, and why we need to apply the Open Source/hacker mentality. We need to bolster change in society, we can’t just make a law and make everyone love science and technology (nor is that ideal at any rate, we need art and language) this is not smoking in public places! But what we can do is curate communities outside the education system that bridge the gap between academia, industry and peers who are doing the stuff the other kids want to be able to do, to do this for the greater good of the next generations – we really do. Because if we don’t, this is going to be a horribly slow burn, gang.

I am not going to address the girl thing. Needless to say my views are written many times in this blog, but definitely not helped by events such as the one I attended today and wrote about here, where there was only one female speaker and she was only on the first panel, and the members of the audience that were invited to speak were all male (until I caused a bit of a twitter fuss during the event, and the chair was asked to invite a female to answer the girl question, the selected member of the audience sadly was put on the spot, had no researched opinion on the matter and other than being a female physicist was at a bit of a loss as to what to say).

And so I wrote this.

4 responses

  1. I think science is meant to be inherently open. Peer review, journals, and even the original purpose of the internet are all ways STEM researchers contribute to the pool of knowledge.

    Its very easy to forget the ‘old ways’ in the context of product-oriented research.

    Research-funded universities already have a refined version of the model you propose. External companies and university funds contribute to a fund that finances research for publishing, allowing other companies and institutes to ‘fork,’ replicate, refine or commercialise under the same model.

    In my limited experience, STEM research doesn’t move quickly enough for an agile repository like a scientific GitHub.

  2. As stated by Lawrence, science (and research in general) already has a kind of (slow) “fork and pull” model whereby results are published and others build on them and again publish etc.

    The question for me is whether this can be accelerated through the application of new technology. I say YES! There are already strong moves toward open publication and open data. Why not make projects open from the beginning? If nothing else, this would enable early failure of badly conceived research, facilitate collaboration and avoid duplication of effort.

    One problem I anticipate is that people may be reluctant to share their work in the first place, and this is a cultural issue. Emma, any ideas how to solve this one?

    • Well no, that bit is cultural as you say. The mid-term solution would be to instill this practice in junior/senior school education, so it is not preceived as different. Also to create a GitHub type, beautifully designed space that makes it easy and compelling to use. But it would have been great to have discussed this last night! (Had I been allowed to ask a question)

      • Ah! But, I think you’ve nailed it right there: “beautifully designed space that makes it easy and compelling to use”.

        There are efforts to solve similar problems to this in my field, but no-one uses them because they aren’t beautifully designed. For this idea to work, there are big UX problems to solve and I think involving designers in the solution is essential to adoption. Most of the existing projects in this space are poorly designed (or not designed at all). Design is something that sets GitHub apart. Perhaps one approach to “GitHub for Science” is to keep the underlying tech, but realign the design for a research workflow.

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