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?

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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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    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...
  • Feb 26 2013: At the beginning and the end of the day, we are all humans, with a body that feels - good, bad, indifferent, with emotions - hopeful, angry, contrary, joyful, fearful, etc. This messiness of the body is what often gets in the way of "civilized collaboration." But it doesn't need to, it is actually the one thing that we all share and should be acknowledged from the very beginning. Because common ground is what is needed as foundation for any collaborative effort, I propose that - essential humanity not be relegated to the side corners. It is commonly understood that whenever decisions are made on behalf of others who have not been given the opportunity to participate in the process of creating - those on the receiving end will have many complaints. And this is the same, with us in the collaborative process, when we ignore the humanity of our brother and sister collaborators - ignore their passions, discount their doubts, silence their discomforts, ridicule their excitement over an idea ... with the idea of being more logical, thrifty, time-sensitive, and so forth ... we kill the hope of collaboration.

    First and foremost, we need to acknowledge we are all share the commonground of human-ness and whatever messy biological/psychological reality that pertains. It is the personal drama behind the collaboration, that needs to be given a seat at the table before any truly "civilized collaboration" can occur.

    BTW, I am not talking about a share-all psycho-drama pre-session, but rather a simple acknowledgement of say - a participant is under the weather and is having difficulty concentrating; another is dealing with some private personal issues; another is widely excited about a seemingly improbable but worthy of investigation idea; another has had too much coffee and needs to chill. These are all factors that contribute to collaboration sessions whether, we want them to or not, and once we discretely acknowledge them, we can move on with wisdom.
  • 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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    Feb 21 2013: Hi Avi,

    This is a very imprtant question!

    There is no doubt that collaberation is the great power of humanity.
    As such, it is a default property of humans.
    Being a default, it will not respond to forcing, but will respond to allowing.
    So the best way to balance it is to identify impediments and removing them.
    Some constraints are universal - identifying these will also help.

    I would not be worried about the "conscription" aspect - I assure you, there are a great many individuals who are passionate about brain science.
    From the outside, it looks like some linear study, but the fundamental principles of neural networks are deeply non-linear. Much is already known, but the actual implementation in a real human brain presents some incredible challenges. And, just as with the human genome project, a comprehensive maping will reveal whole new galaxies of questions.
    Very exciting stuff!
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    Feb 21 2013: I see two different questions here. One is how to balance individual and collaborative work. The second is whether it makes sense to put all eggs in one basket.

    Starting with the first, I think some projects are best undertaken through individual action or by allocating tasks that are undertaken independently but with attention to the interfaces between different people's parts. Others require elbow-to-elbow collaboration.

    Further some people are much more effective in creative teams than others are and are more natural collaborators.

    Moving to your second question, I don't understand why one would want all the Earth's intellectual resources to be taken up in any single project.
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      Feb 26 2013: Hi Fritzie,

      I totally agree with your answer to the first question. I believe there is a "sweet spot" to be struck between working as a team and working as an individual. The optimum relationship for this balance would depend on the nature of the problem to be solved (and, of course, the nature of the people solving the problem), and I suppose it would have to be empirically determined.

      As for the second question, I think Avi's "eggs in one basket" question was a reference to a potential downside of total collaboration - namely, if everyone is totally involved in the groupthink resulting from constant collaboration, we may miss out on important discoveries/insights made when people strike out on their own when trying to address a problem. I think this question is very relevant to general human nature... I think that this is a very valid concern and thus necessitates the balance which we referred to in the first part of the question.
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        Feb 27 2013: Osaze, I think Avi was just mentioning one extreme type of collaboration. But it's definitely not limited to that. But just like Fritzie said, there is definitely a place for an interface between different scientists of different nationalities can be utilized appropriately. If we were to put all the "eggs in one basket" that would definitely not advantageous, but if it there was universal interest I feel that it can be really successful.

        The space program in our country was successful because of the competitive nature of the time, but what if the Soviet's and American's joined forces during that time in history. Who knows if it would have been any different. Plus, it contributes to world peace! (Just as much as it might hinder it...)
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    Feb 20 2013: Seems worth saying no effort is ever totally individual.

    I would think each person has their own style, some more individual, some more collaborative. Some projects work well with individual effort, some collaborative.
  • Feb 27 2013: Amazing answers to challenges from the least suspected sources have have come from collaboration. The mega collaboration also 'spins off new ideas'. The word BALANCE is a factor that is of most importance and will determine success. A project out of balance no matter in the research lab, or in a collaborative forum, can be skewed, therefore controls must always be in place, just lest defined when working with such speed and scale. We are all out here working for the best (I hope) and the possibilities are limitless. Best!!
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    Feb 24 2013: Avi, thanks for your post!
    I want so badly to positivly contribute to this post however it's difficult to respond to your question. It is too lofty, too vague. Perhaps the question you should ask is how to generate smaller collaborative efforts, determine what problems are most significant and find out how to fund them.

    Total collaboration of the world's resources toward one goal is completely impractical but yes, teamwork in general is a good thing that advances every field.

    With total collaboration comes the requirement of some investment group selecting where to place their funds. This is limiting. What should we focus on first the cancer that affects the wife of investor A or the poverty that afflicts the rural town in a country that founded Investor Company B. Who chooses the problem to focus on first?

    Eric Berlow states, "The more you can zoom out and embrace complexity, the more you can zoom in on the simple details that matter most." Complexity makes collaboration essential to solving any issue and collaboration is the key to building any solution, but on a smaller scale. Look at my post for Jay's question [bit.ly/15d7gKF] ... collaboration between creative marketing teams and research groups results in educational and promoted videos.
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      Feb 25 2013: Hey!

      You bring up a great point, in that money seems to be a deciding factor for most scientific research. Whether it be grants, or individual investment, people want to see a return on their dollars. Back to when I mentioned the Human genome project, or Obama's new Brain Map, a huge focus was about finance and economy stimulation. Perhaps another important (TED) conversation about this would be the next step!
  • Feb 23 2013: The way to achieve collaboration so that people don't get in each other's way, so strangers can synergize, so information produced becomes fuel for refinements, is to take a cue from nature and establish a technological but organic "cyber-hive". In the insect world of hives no one designs the hive, yet through the smaller interactions of "cooperants" on cells in the lattice or "honey comb" the hive grows in size and sophistication. Traditionally what humans have done is deploy hierarchical methods in which an overlord or overlord body exists which is in charge of the progress of the entire organization and information travels slowly up the hierarchy and used at the top to make decisions then sent down the chain somewhat synchronously to all other performers. This is not suited to these times because everyone has access to information and intelligence and need no special permission to use it in their ideas. So, what happens is clashes of hierarchies with secretiveness and exclusion rather than adaptive "cells" of hooking up with other cells that can synergize where openness about what they are doing is THE WAY to allow the cream to rise.

    The Internet has not been used to facilitate this kind of collaborative modality yet. Though millions of people work on the technologies which together make for the possibility of achieving a secondary plane of human discourse other than the natural terrestery, no one works on cyberspace itself yet. I have pioneered this and have worked with a small circle I now consider a master class of cyberspace theoreticians who establish what is possible if and when we break free of the hegemony of alpha-numerics (in the sense that in computer operating systems the alphabet and numbers are the umbrella under which all is managed and sorted which creates an esoteric limiter). Cyberspace needs an interface of its own where we can observe new politics and new engines of progress that lead to a newer modernity.
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      Feb 25 2013: Wow, far out!

      I completely agree, the sense of collaboration that I invision as a succsessful means to solve our greatest challanges would have to be one of the honeycomb structure you speak of. We must be cautious of certain people who want to be "in charge" (may it be due to having money, title, seniority, etc.) who will strive to get their way. Ideally, it would have to be a community effort!

      The internet is most likely the interface to get us there. Nowadays, crowdsourcing is gaining popularity; perhaps, the future of crowdsourcing will converge with scientific discovery and we will have to wait and see what the product will be.
      • Feb 25 2013: The Internet is still primitive and needs radical new art to drive it to much higher standards. Part of the problem with doing that now is that many people see the Internet as a "right"--a medium of free speech, and want to impose artificial neutrality. It's not a free speech medium because it's not a broadcast medium. It is something else--analogous to a big filing cabinet where you can float a file but only those who are looking for it are likely to see it. I don't mind paying more to get a radically improved system where people take economics, sociology and ecology explicitly serious. Thus I see net neutrality as misguided and short-sighted--it's not all about big companies profiteering, it's about stimulus breaking--offering stuff that changes your world along the lines of those three criteria (economically, socially and ecologically). If laws keep a cap on things there will be no incentive to offer dramatically improved modalities.

        What's keeping the net primitive also is a hegemony of "alpha-numerics" i.e. "text"--using the alphabet and numbers as the "filing" system. Priority content should have a cyberspace interface which associates information by "natural criteria"--not the alphabet, not the hierarchy of numbers. When that replaces today's Internet there will be far less "dumb searches" where we search but get back hundreds of pages of irrelevancies or stuff where people try to beat the listing game. What we want to do is achieve a culture where we don't accept casual defeat of our progress. Every effort must trail-blaze some new facilitation of success. As long as we remain accepting of dead ends, we will be a dead end society. I have written a philosophy on this and hope to publish. I prefer to publish a nonlinear "prompt-and-answer" bank with modalities for sustaining application of cyber theory. But that's abstract to investors unfortunately. Writing it in linear text is frustrating. I call the philosophy facilitarianism. You heard it here first folks.
  • Feb 21 2013: Avi.
    Human nature is not the problem, as someone mentioned below.
    Those who believe it is are an indication of brainwashing.
    A comment/belief like that, stops everything in its tracks, which is one motive of spreading such a belief.
    When you hear it or read it, you know its been spread.
    If it were true, we humans would not respond in loving, supportive, helpful and beneficial ways that we have demonstrated for all time.
    A World Commission in 1980 (not sure, 1984 maybe), involving most countries that then existed, put together a study of just how much money it would cost to solve all the problems humans, all life forms, and the planet, face - and need solving along with human desire to solve. The cost for each was astronomical. Some of these you mention above:
    disease, poverty, slavery, clean water, illiteracy, homelessness, etc. The total for everything was only 1/4 of the worlds military spending. When people broach a solution to one of our problems and are shouted down by those crying, "who's going to pay for it?" we see immediately that all of it is affordable.
    Collaboration, or volunteerism, has been present and available for many years now. We see it in action after devastating tsunami's, earthquakes, hurricanes, fires, tornadoes and other catastrophes, including the ravages of war.
    Pooling the earths resources won't do it. Humans are currently our greatest resource and pooling them is the answer.
    Proper management of the earth's resources is also what we need and that too, needs to be a collaborative effort.
    Climate change, the warming of the earth, and the melting of the ice caps, have begun and we cannot stop them, nor reverse them. We may not be able to slow them down either nor be able to gauge just how fast or slow they will occur.

    But, we will always need water as these events move on. Cleaning up the seven garbage patch islands that are destroying "all of our oceans" would be a great collaborative effort by the world, for the world and with the world.
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      Feb 21 2013: I agree with you, RC, that it is in human nature to collaborate and that telling each other something can't happen because of human nature is a convenient way, often, to stop everything in its tracks.

      Further, I think there is a widespread tendency to underestimate other people's potential and good values even among those with great confidence in their own.

      I think many positive activities don't get launched because people are discouraged from the start, too discouraged to want to try.
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      Feb 21 2013: RC,

      Your comment filled me with joy. I completely agree that Humans are out biggest resource!
      Unfortunately, as G. Lockwood commented below, human nature may one hinderance, as people are usually unhappy with collaborating on such a high level, especially if they feel that their personal contributions might not get enough recognition.

      However, I personally feel that the human race holds an intrinsic yearning to problem solve and to move forward and when it comes to our largest and most important problems, more often then not, the solutions will be the fruit of a communal effort rather than a single individuals effort!
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        Feb 22 2013: Why do you say that "people are usually unhappy with collaborating on such a high level, especially if they feel their personal contributions might not get enough recognition?" What specific evidence has convinced you of this?
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          Feb 22 2013: True, I shouldnt generalize. I believe that someone may argue that collaboration in large groups can lead to some contributors not getting the recognition they deserve.

          For example, the 2008 Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded to Osamu Shimomura, Martin Chalfie and Roger Tsien for their work on green fluorescent protein. However, Douglas Prasher was the first to clone the GFP gene and suggested its use as a biological tracer.Prasher's accomplishments were not recognized and he lost his job. In fact, Wikipedia goes as far as to say that "when the Nobel was awarded in 2008, Prasher was working as a courtesy shuttle bus driver in Huntsville Alabama."
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        Feb 22 2013: There is no doubt that in collaborations, some people tend to get more recognition than others. What I questionned was not whether people get different levels of recognition but rather how important a factor recognition is in motivating high level creative thinkers to engage in important projects.

        What about the draw of doing fun, challenging, and important creative work?
        • Feb 25 2013: WELL SAID!

          I find the more i collaborate the more I am appreciated. As long as my 'home' is where we want to be (and we are) then increasing my value to others starts mattering more.
  • Feb 21 2013: Avi Maybe human nature is the problem/