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.

Young Rewired State Year 5: Everywhere and Hyperlocal

So the time has come when we are all itching for more Young Rewired State, and interestingly it seems that year 4-5 of this thing is when it all starts to get local. As you know, we like to try stuff to see if it works and so here is a very brief outline of the plans as we stand today, (PLANS, not definites… we are still testing ideas):

YRS in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales
Historically we have struggled to get centres and kids in these areas, mainly because we need to do more to raise awareness of YRS rather than there not being any kids who could take part. So we are planning on running three separate hack weekends on open local government data for 50 kids in each place, emulating what we did in England in 2009 at Google – the beginning of YRS.

The first is being run in Scotland: http://rewiredstate.org/hacks/yrs-scotland-2012 and we are working out Wales right now and Northern Ireland will likely be a collaboration with Maggie Philbin and Teentech.

  • if you would like to assist with the organisation of any of these three weekends, please let me know


YRS UK local

We now have 42 centres across the UK, some slightly bamboozled, but those who are in their 2nd or 3rd year of being a centre are well-established and seeing a need to foster the local coding youth community beyond the annual event, both through the centre and with Ben (Nunney)’s community management offerings to all of the YRSers.

We are also looking at how these kids can work together on local community projects, or not – just things that interest them – and would like to see the centres be involved in this.

Please bear with us as we take our time to get this right. We have managed to nut years 1-4, we just need to work out year 5 and then we can rinse and repeat, for everyone.

YRS Worldwide

The idea has always been to find and foster every kid who is driven to teach themselves how to code, and this does not limit us to the UK. For a few years now we have received messages from people overseas keen to run their own YRS events. So in 2013 we are launching YRS Everywhere. We are going to run weekends (again for 50 kids using local open government data) in the following places:

  • Estonia
  • Berlin
  • New York
  • Amsterdam
  • Kenya
  • plus one other wild card (we have a few options here you see)

We will replicate the method of scale we used in the UK, moving from weekend to week, to multiple centres and finally hyper-local, year on year – all the time connecting these young coders to each other, in a very light way, maintaining the worldwide mentoring model used to date. We have no idea how this will work out, but we have begun chats with local developer networks who will act as foster networks for the youngsters, and open government data people in country, and the response has been wildly enthusiastic.

  • If any of you have contacts in any of these countries, please do hook me up with them, I would like to tie everything together as much as I can

Money – how are we paying for this?

Firstly it is important to clarify that my intention is not to build an organisation and flog it for millions. The idea is that this thing will be built and will grow and grow and grow, goodness knows where it will take us all but I would still like to be doing this when I am 90, and I would like to still be doing this with you all. I find that more exciting than being rich for a few years then sad and lonely…

We run YRS on a sponsor model, covering costs by trading what we actually have (access to young programming minds to test kit or raise brand awareness to a new generation) but not selling databases or IP. Obviously I have given up work now and we have a small team who run YRS and Rewired State (Rewired State being a profit-making social enterprise), we are paid through money made on RS hack days and through pieces of consultancy. YRS will continue to run on a NfP model, as we grow so we will need to raise more money to cover our ambition, but we are not shackled to a VC because we are not building a business to sell – we are creating a network that will continue to grow and hopefully gainfully employ more and more people and be rewarding and energising – because we have no flipping idea what is actually going to happen, and have the freedom to do this.

And so we work very closely with our chosen sponsors every year to both get the cash we need to run this thing and to get them the results they need in order to donate actual money to us. It is a fine line but we work hard to get it right (nearly there!).

We intend to find a single main partner for Young Rewired State: Everywhere, as SAP were for us in the 2012 Festival of Code. We will find a model that combines local, in-country sponsorship, combined with our main partner sponsor.

In addition to this we will continue to run ‘for profit’ Rewired State hack days to support central costs.

The only way we can scale to find every single kid driven to teach themselves how to code, is to avoid obvious limitations. There is not going to be any single group that rises to the top as an outright winner from YRS, everyone will benefit, but every person involved can choose how they shape their involvement in YRS – it totally will be what you make of it.

I know I am in it for life and I am going to dedicate myself to making it great and worldwide. Young developers will take the network and make friends for life, build businesses, create the next bazillion dollar thing. Mentors will become worldwide mentors helping young people from all backgrounds, maybe even working with them to create something world-changing. Centres will find their own local coding youth and will hold the ability to shape that relationship and hone those skills for the greater good, or for their own. The Rewired State team work together to boldly go wherever, to try stuff, test and be brave, with a small cushion (a very small cushion) of financial stability. It is what we all make of it.

But I do not believe in death by committee. I never have but flirted with it in the early days of this social enterprise and it failed. I plan to lead this thing and forge ahead with as much support as I can muster and see how far we get. A time will come when what we are doing becomes irrelevant, at that point I will get a new job.

  • if any of you know of any potential sponsors or partners for any of this, please let me know

 

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