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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 22 2013: I tend to doubt that *total* collaboration is a seriously viable, but I'd argue that its not desirable either. Firstly, there's the issue of "too many cooks", how much of Earth's greatest intellectual resources would be taken up by just communication with a huge number of collaborators who wouldn't be able to contribute as much as the greater and more passionate minds. It is possible that some problems can't be "brute forced" and may only have creative solutions accesible to a single mind. Further, the political problems are daunting. Who chooses what problem to tackle? Could there be problems that are actually unsolvable- if so, who decides when to scrap that project and move on? Like you say, many other projects would be delayed or unrealized. Nor could total collaboration be effectively enforced without some fascist system.

    But, if total collaboration isn't viable or desirable, I don't mean to say that holds true for more collaboration overall. Indeed, there are many inefficiencies when private companies are doing the same R&D, duplicating another company's old work that is inaccesible to them. But what's the solution to this? Some have proposed a shared database where companies and researchers can submit their "dead end" cases so that no one needs to replicate research that has already been shown to fail to solve the problem. But companies would have incentives to contribute the minimum amount to avoid helping their competitors. It's not an easy problem to resolve for private research. This sort of thing may be easier to implement with universities or national science organizations. Certainly with modern technology we should have more international scientific collaboration!

    Still, individual effort should also be upheld. Different approaches to the same problem is very valuable and should not be abandoned.
    • Feb 25 2013: I smiled at your description of the process that is happening now. Total collaboration may just happen, but the circumstances have to be right. I'm already seeing collaboration (fyi old word was work) on scales unimaginable just a short time back, and we're just getting introduced to each other :)
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      Feb 25 2013: I couldnt agree more Jon!

      We're currently in a world that's seeing exponential growth in terms of ways we can communicate and share our thoughts and ideas!
      And aas Paul mentioned, were just getting introduced! Certainly, total collaboration is a tad farfetched, but where we are now in terms of collaborating with each other doesnt quite do the trick!

      maybe instead of hashtagging silly things (currently trending: #askjackandfinn ... what?) the world could make some great strides if the current trending hashtag was something like #CureDiabetes and we'd have major biochemists tweeting each other about some interesting protein they've encountered.

      My question is, wheres the balance of collaboration versus personal study? I dont believe we're at the right place today. Lets see where we go from here.

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