Harvard B-School's Working Knowledge newsletter has a great article this week called Open Source Science: A New Model for Innovation.
In a perfect world, scientists share problems and work together on solutions for the good of society. In the real world, however, that's usually not the case. The main obstacles: competition for publication and intellectual property protection.
Is there a model for encouraging large-scale scientific problem solving? Yes, and it comes from an unexpected and unrelated corner of the universe: open source software development.
Karim Lakhani, an Assistant Professor at the B-school with lots of research experience in the Open Source software community, looked at ways the concept could be applied to research. In particular, he focused on the question of whether scientific advances spring naturally from the privileged core of a discipline, those immersed in it 150% of the time, or whether outsiders with a fresh perspective had an edge. His findings:
...it was outsiders—those with expertise at the periphery of a problem's field—who were most likely to find answers and do so quickly.
...The problem may reside in one domain of expertise and the solution may reside in another. I've done interviews with scientists who participated by posting problems for broadcast, and most of these scientists were highly skeptical about this method because they considered themselves to be at the top of their discipline. However, they had never thought about the possibility of scientists in other disciplines looking at their problem, reconceptualizing it, and coming up with a solution that could be off-the-shelf. So when they actually see solutions from this type of method, they're blown away.
This is the Web 2.0 mindset reaching the hallowed halls of science. It's a great interview piece, with more objectivity than I'm presenting here. He and the interviewer discuss the risks as well as the benefits of this approach. To me, though, this is all good news. No paradigm shift is all upside, but we are a world in desperate need of innovative, out-of-the-box solutions. Now let's see if the silos of the world can tolerate such openness.