The same only different?

An astute friend recently sent me an email with the following announcement :
Please join the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in exploring open innovation approaches enabled by the new prize authority.
Crowdsourcing: The Art and Science of Open Innovation
My friend observed that the “prize” approach to stimulating innovating problem solving has been around for a long time and just keeps being re-invented with a new hype. I have always found prizes curious when it comes to problems requiring knowledge generation not just knowledge application because it is never clear how one finances the first component of the quest. What is interesting to me in the re-invention of prizes as “crowdsourcing” is the clever way typical NIH “throw more money at problems” approach is now combined with a “throw more people at problems” approach. I do think the more people you have working on problems can lead to new insights. It might also just add to more noise. In fact I always thought that was what the big pyramid of the scientific workforce was supposed to be doing — you capture alot of people at the bottom with all their ideas mixed in and jumbled up with all the noise – and then over time a gradual seiving begins such that only those with clever and original ideas persist.
At the moment – there seems to be a lot of clutching at straws among science funders hoping somehow if one grabs often enough the brass ring is bound to be in one of the handfuls of hay. This might be OK for private funders — after all we should be about experimentation and willingness to fail. The federal funders are responsible for maintaining the enterprise and when they go all silly and trendy — well the enterprise responds by getting all silly and trendy. Not good.

Doing good by staying put?

Recently I participated in a series of small meetings with prominent scientists. Over dinner the discussion turned to recent and upcoming travel. Summers in Aspen or Wyoming or Nova Scotia. Trips to Paris, Venice, Rome, Sienna, Melbourne, Singapore, Buenas Aires, Rio, … you get the picture. Sabbaticals here – field research there. For all of the complaining (the other most popular topic is the lack of funding!) the picture emerges once again of what a priviledged life academic scientists live. Non-scientists are often awed by the far reaching experiences researchers enjoy. Exciting work, bright colleagues, eager trainees, fascinating travel.
AND this got me thinking… so, even while much of this travel is supported by private funds such as meetings hosted by Foundations or disease organizations and some of the travel costs were born by companies or covered under consultancies rather than re-imbursement from research grants (although certainly research grants also cover travel -particularly to professional society meetings) – MUCH of the travel expenses are, in one way or another, still coming from the same pot as direct research funding. SO — what if all scientists agreed that they would travel less – say 50% – and divert the funds for meetings, workshops, conferences, lectures (these in particular can easily be replaced by electronic tools) back into the LAB research budget? We could accomplish several things with 1 stone:
1) less time away from home; 2) energy and water resources saved; 3) more money for research. Worth considering? And with the time saved – researchers could actually go on a proper vacation – but paid for with their own dime, like regular folk.