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Avi Gadish

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How do we best balance collaboration and individual efforts to solve our grandest challenges?

Collaboration has played a vital role in the research of new ideas and discoveries. In his State of the Union Address, President Obama unveiled upcoming plans to allocate funding and resources to what he called the Brain Activity Map project. The project, which is projected to last a decade, seeks to study the inner workings of the human brain and to develop a complete map of its activity. The project is aims to “solve” the brain in a similar fashion that the Human Genome Project (HGP) did the human genome. The HGP was a huge success both scientifically and economically and involved worldwide collaboration in multiple fields of science.

There is no doubt that collaboration between individuals, especially when spanning multiple disciplines, yields positive results. Certainly, the most effective way to solve some of humankind’s greatest problems (say, diabetes, AIDS, poverty, clean water, etc.), would require the world’s best and brightest to drop everything else and team up! This is total collaboration. It is my belief that, were it possible, the way to solve some of the world's biggest problems would be to pool the world’s resources together in a collaborative, positive, and effective manner.

Of course, there are drawbacks to total collaboration. Many would argue (especially those who may be “drafted” into what may seem like “conscripted collaboration”) that time is better spent researching something one is passionate about, interested in, and invested in! In addition, many other discoveries and advancements may be delayed, or worse, unrealized if all of Earth’s intellectual resources are taken up by a single project.

I open the forum to the TED Community: Does total collaboration hold the future of scientific discovery, and if so, can we really risk putting all of our proverbial eggs in one basket?

Topics: collaberation

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    Feb 21 2013: Hi Avi,

    You pose a very interesting question. I do not think it is possible, or beneficial, to have total collaboration. There are so many factors, including politics and economics, that will not allow for the world to work in a single project. However, if somehow this could be possible, I do not think this will necessarily aid us in solving our grandest challenges.

    The reason much research is developed to begin with is freedom and passion. If we did not have the ability to discover on our own, much would be lost in terms of the achievements we accomplish. I deeply belief that only through a sense of freedom can we produce our minds great works. It is the passion, as Neema beautifully stated, that sustains our projects.

    Having total collaboration will take away our freedom and passion, and by doing so, decrease our creativity. In order to create a world of flourishing experiments and ideas, we must remember to allow individuals to choose their hearts desire.
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      Feb 21 2013: Hadar,

      I like your ideas. I agree that passion is the best motivator and I know that my love of discovery, above all, is what fuels my creativity!

      The idea I've tried to express in my question does not require total collaboration to be possible. I merely tried to pose one extreme versus another.

      However, to illustrate the value of (if not "total," at least) mass collaboration, we saw that the Human Genome Project, a huge undertaking, was completed with the aid of many European nations as well as from Japan. In fact, the expected time-frame of the project was an overshoot! With the (originally unexpected) worldwide contributions, the HGP was completed in "just" 13 years!

      I have to disagree with you on the point of total collaboration being a hinderance to personal expression, ambition and freedom. Except for in the (hypothetical and also, unlikely) case of conscripted collaboration, I think many would find that having an multinational team representing critically acclaimed scholars and scientists very meaningful, exciting and fulfilling experience which could open the doors to the greatest discoveries!
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        Feb 22 2013: Hello Avi and Hadar,
        Firstly, I just would like to point out that although the Human Genome Project did involve worldwide collaboration among scientists all over the world - it was not a concerted effort as you portrayed in your statement. In fact, there were two teams of scientists vying against the other to get the sequence first so that they could be the group that had the first publication. Yes people were collaborating, but it wasn't a united worldwide effort to uncover the human genome. In fact some may see it as an example of the extreme competition in science to publish.
        I agree with you Avi, that collaboration is good for science and allows us to make more discoveries and inventions. However, one can not deny the fact that people need to make money, and scientists use their research as their income. As a result, there is often intense pressure on scientists to publish, and competition within branches of science to publish their experimental findings first. I don't think that collaboration hinders ambition and personal expression. In fact I think that collaboration enhances it because it allows scientists to combine their different skill sets and personal talents to achieve more. However, despite the ideal value of collaboration, I think it's impractical to ever achieve complete collaboration. People need to make money and want to succeed, and in order to that history has shown that someone has to win over the other.
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          Feb 24 2013: Hi Lauren,
          I agree that collaboration leads to intense competition among scientists as well as nations involved in the projects. Worldwide collaboration involves political, economic, and other non-science driven interests. However, I think such intense, goal-driven environment can be beneficial because it is a huge pressure and motivation to scientists in their research even if all they are trying to do is to outperform others. Although this may be ethically wrong, it is true that worldwide collaboration did accomplish something that couldn't have happened otherwise. Maybe worldwide collaboration can be used by bringing competitive scientists together while making sure they are actually working together in some sense to achieve the mutual goal as well as their personal goals to publish, make money, etc?
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          Feb 26 2013: Hey Lauren!
          I thought I posted this a few days ago, I guess I must have clicked on something incorrectly:

          I think your example of the Human Genome Project is the perfect example of competition pushing science more than collaboration. Obviously collaboration between great minds is useful for research, two heads are better than one and so on, but total collaboration would result in a lack of competition, and that might actually result in less conclusive research being achieved.

          I also agree that acting upon this idea of total collaboration would be impractical because it wouldn't be possible to give each collaborator enough in return, whether that enough be monetary value, or ego-driven fame. Also, with all of the talented scientists of the world working on one project, who is to say that ego in general wouldn't be a huge hinderence, even if we could get them to agree to collaborate like that? The idea that we could get so many great minds to collaborate, even if we momentarily ignore actual solving of problems, the collaboration itself is project so large that it demands its own analysis for complexity.
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      J D

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      Feb 26 2013: I agree that passionate work is what innovates the fastest and most creatively. It's a more advanced form of specialization, which is what enabled early societies to grow.

      Passionate collaboration can be huge. I believe that personality is partly pre-determined, and that some personalities are more likely to take interest in science. There is so much untapped potential in impoverished neighborhoods. If we can unlock that potential through community organizers and better schools, and then increase awareness of our greatest problems, we can innovate in the right direction so much faster.

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