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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,
    I definitely think collaboration is extremely important for scientific research. When people from different fields, backgrounds, or education styles get together and each bring something new to the table, that’s how progress is made. Hardly anything can be done without collaboration, no one field of study is independently sufficient to take on a problem alone. Discoveries are best made when a team of people with various degrees and interests join together. My favorite example of this is the work done at places like CERN and imec. You mentioned being forced to collaborate against one’s will, and I agree, this may not be ideal. If there are people who would prefer to work separately they should be permitted to do so, there is no sense in forcing them to work on something their heart is not in. As for the fear of all of Earth’s intellectual resources being taken up by a single project, all I can say is, Earth has a fair amount of resources and I do not think it is even possible for all of them to be focused on a single project.
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      Feb 23 2013: I tend to agree with Neema's thoughts.

      Collaboration is a necessary human trait. It rarely occurs that a single minded person will discover some mind-blowing idea. It is the joint effort of multiple brains that makes the human species so powerful.

      My question is, what is more important here: not forcing people to collaborate against their own will or being able to complete the brain activity map. From an ethical standpoint, you shouldn't force scientists to research and collaborate on something they won't do willingly.

      Again, I don't think its possible for Earth's resources to be taken up by this project. The Earth has billions of people, most of which will have no idea that such a collaboration is going on.

      Lastly, I want to connect this complex idea to the TED video on complexity we watched this week: http://www.ted.com/talks/eric_berlow_how_complexity_leads_to_simplicity.html. The whole reason why Obama is calling for a collaboration is due to the complex nature of creating a brain activity map. Yet, perhaps there is some way to make this whole project a little less complex and a little simpler. Who knows...

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