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Science 2.0: Disrupting the publication-grant model of scientific research and introducing the network effects of distributed, open-source, collaboration

[dailymotion]http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xorpa_dna-1of5-the-secret-of-life_school[/dailymotion]

Do you think Maurice Wilkins did the right thing in showing Watson the x ray diffraction image produced by Franklin? Why or why not?

It was ethically wrong, but it changed the world. Ultimately, it was Franklin’s intellectual property. It was her work and she had all the rights to its ownership. However, I have a greater concern than the ethical and property rights argument. To encourage participation and synergy across departments and universities, as Wilkins’ had hoped, one needs to fundamentally change the incentive system in science. Historically, science and scientists have depended on the publication-grant model to acquire funding and advance our understanding of the world. But why should publishers be the gatekeepers to drive innovation and invention? Why should scientists have to spend half the year writing a grant to acquire funding, when they could spend that time doing groundbreaking research? In the tech industry, GitHub.com and SourceForge.net have become the repositories for open-source innovation. Engineers, scientists, designers and business leaders collaborate on this site to create meaningful change. Projects can be created spontaneously to solve specific problems and attracts talent from across the world. Some of the world’s most powerful and useful software has been generated in an open-source manner (e.j. Mozilla Firefox, one of the world’s most common web browser, Linux, a free operating system, osCommerce, an e-commerce platform repackaged as Magento, and PBX / Twilio, a call routing system used by almost all toll free automated phone services). If the same system was available to scientists, imagine the possibilities. The incentive system would be obvious: contribute to the project’s overall knowledge (in the form of imaging, lines of code, experimental data, etc), your time investments will be accounted, and when the project finds investment capital, the contributors will be paid appropriately (a factor of time invested and importance of individual contributions). I read an interesting article in the WSJ about this idea (http://on.wsj.com/uHZmqs).

Venture capitalists get excited and fund Internet startups that are trying to crowdsource ice cream trucks and get them to right neighborhoods to find business. This stuff can get as much as $5 million in Series A funding. And it doesn’t change the world one bit. I look forward to the day scientists ditch their labs, join the DIY Biology Movement, get some 3D printers, a basic PCR machine, and start hacking some problems on their own. I have a feeling that much like computer programming became a decentralized activity with the advent of personal computers, synthetic biology, 3D printing and basic PCR machines will be the future of scientific research. Ultimately, individuals are far more capable of making transformative changes than bureaucratic organizations. Google was a couple of college kids on their thousand dollar laptops. Steve Jobs’ Apple Computers and Bill Gates’ Microsoft are the product of two college dropouts who built personal computers that everyone could use. The tools of innovation, of disruptive change are in everybody’s hands and they are not expensive. One just has to be courageous enough to give up a comfortable job and change the world.

More investors need to start thinking about creating technology accelerators to advance science and bring some major breakthroughs to market. There are some early entrants like Singularity University’s SynBio Launchpad (a Synthetic Biology Startup Accelerator – http://singularityu.org/synbio/), Peter Theil’s Founders Fund, John Doerr’s Kleiner Perkins and Caulfield, and Steve Jurvetson’s Draper Fisher Jurvetson that are following this model and will, in my humble and honest opinion, find great success.

In what ways did competition between the scientists help or hinder the progress to understanding the structure of DNA?

Competition definitely helped progress the discovery of the structure of DNA. This is a highly philosophical argument, but when you bring together the best and brightest minds in any field, give them one of the world’s biggest challenges, and make them compete against each other, you add the key ingredient to making massive amounts of progress. That ingredient is momentum. Case in point was the Human Genome Project and Celera Genomics competing to crack the order of the six billion base pairs that comprise the human genome. Competition is the key ingredient to get people to do a lot of work, very quickly. I realize this philosophy does not agree with the academia’s idealistic and utopian notions of sharing and collaboration, but it often works better than academic collaboration, because it incentivizes divergent thinking, speed of thought, ability to pivot and try something new. Competition is transformative; it is the intersection at which passion meets momentum. When you are competing against someone, you start to realize that you’re not the only one around the bend and that you’ve got to win the race before they do. If Watson and Crick collaborated with Franklin and Wilkins, their distinct methodology, their philosophy of the world, and the creative synergy between Watson and Crick would have been lost. Their free-spirited nature, their creative endeavors and interdisciplinary attitude towards learning and knowledge assimilation, would have been canceled out by the work ethic of Franklin and Wilkins. One needs to encourage divergent thinking rather than group think, because synergies between individuals who work well with each other creates an energy, a passion that will always outpace the often compromised output of group think. Companies like IDEO tap into this philosophy to continually bring innovative and game-changing products to market. It may be true that Franklin and Wilkins’ eagerly and painstakingly amassed the evidence for the DNA double helix, but their minds were not quick to assimilate the evidence and create meaningful information. They had all the data but they couldn’t imagine the structure, which is a key point that shouldn’t be overlooked.  Franklin was a great scientist, but she was too rigid to really break out the world of data accounting and analysis. Perhaps, if she had been open to synergistic collaboration, she would have cracked the code of life before Watson and Crick. Undoubtedly, Franklin was a mastermind and a very deliberate, analytical thinker. But, she was uncomfortable with the notion of being wrong. The key to being great is to overcome your own ego, to encourage divergent thinking, establish a creative synergy with your closest collaborators, not be affected by dogma, believe in your own ideas and change the world.

Who do you think should get the credit for solving the structure of DNA? Provide some evidence to support your answer.

I think Watson and Crick should get the credit because ultimately they were able to synthesize and assimilate the raw data and create meaningful information, faster than Franklin and Wilkins. Again, Franklin was extremely close and she may have cracked the code before Watson and Crick if she had a better collaborator.

Undoubtedly, Franklin was a mastermind and a very deliberate, analytical thinker. But, she was uncomfortable with the notion of being wrong. When Crick invited Franklin to come look at their early prototype of the DNA spiral, she laughed at them. They had got it inside out. Clearly, Watson’s inertia to take notes during Franklin’s department research meeting had let him down. They had very stupidly, not accounted for the water content in the structure. She laughed at them and their silly attempt to build a model before they had any idea what the data meant. But, it is precisely this exploratory, experimental and creative attitude that would finally allow Watson and Crick to figure out the structure. Franklin was a great scientist, but she was too rigid to really break out the world of data accounting and analysis. Perhaps, if she had been open to synergistic collaboration, she would have cracked the code of life before Watson and Crick. However, given that she was woman in the 1950s world of all-male scientists, one can imagine why she did not have this opportunity. There was a part in the movie when Franklin’s lab assistant says that Wilkins’ once commented that instead of “trotting along” trying to map the structure of DNA using the diffraction pattern, “we should try other things” because we “are in a race” and this is “a big problem.” Clearly, Wilkins’ had the right ideas to make progress but was in the wrong environment to give them any momentum. It was really a toxic environment for science and for creative thinking.

When Watson shared the picture he had gotten from Wilkins, Francis was immediately able to dissect the structure from the diffraction pattern. Because Crick was an interdisciplinary thinker, he knew just by looking at the picture that the X meant that it was a helix.  Fortunately, Chargaff had also shared that A and T, C and G are equal in concentration. They combined this knowledge and were able to imagine the structure much faster than Franklin. By combining multiple sources of knowledge, they established that the structure must a double helix composed of complimentary base pairs (A-T; G-C).

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