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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: 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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