Commercial & Private Sector

Scientific Problem-Solving Benefits from Open Collaboration

By Keith Cowing
December 19, 2008

Combine prize-driven innovation with the vast communication capability of the web and what do you get? Solutions. A July 22, 2008 New York Times article, If You Have a Problem, Ask Everyone, reports that “open source science” is catching on, and cites success stories that show that the technique has promise. One example of a successful problem-solver is John Davis, a chemist who knows all about concrete and techniques to keep it vibrating so that it won’t set up before it can be used. Mr. Davis applied his knowledge to a seemingly unrelated problem when he figured out that devices used for vibrating concrete can be adapted to keep oil in Alaskan storage tanks from freezing. He was paid $20,000 for his idea.

The website offers a venue for matchmaking between those with a difficult problem to solve and a community of over 80,000 “solvers” worldwide. A study published on the Harvard Business School Forum, The Value of Openness in Scientific Problem Solving by Karim R. Lakhani and colleagues used to broadcast information about 166 scientific problems that well-known R&D-intensive firms had been unable to solve internally. Opening the problem to a large community of scientists, they found that one-third of the problems were solved, and–surprisingly–the farther the self-assessed distance between the problem and the solver’s field of expertise, the more likely they were to submit a winning solution. The authors attribute this result to the ability of an “outsider” to see a problem afresh, and to apply solutions commonly used in their own discipline in new and innovative ways in the problem domain. They note that this is consistent with studies of idea-generation in science, where it has been found that researchers outside of a community often bring novel ideas to the table.

Source: NAI Newsletter

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