Harvard-Based Crowdsource Project Seeks New Diabetes Answers — & Questions
The medical establishment is about to get a dose of web 2.0-style medicine in the form of a crowdsourced, socially networked contest that opens the fight against Type 1 diabetes to the public at large — and to Harvard’s medical research departments — using InnoCentive’s online challenge platform for competition and collaboration.
The stakes are high, not only for the sufferers of Type 1 diabetes who stand to benefit from the leaps in research Harvard hopes the program will generate, but also for InnoCentive and Harvard researchers, who will likely see government funding extended if their findings prove helpful to diabetes sufferers, medical research in general, and our shared knowledge of how to share knowledge.
“Open innovation is an effective way to solve scientific problems in the business world,” said Harvard Business School assistant professor and co-leader on the project Karim R. Lakhani, Ph.D. “According to my research, innovation contests can help reveal and foster unexpected and novel solutions to vexing scientific problems.”
The Harvard Clinical and Translational Science Center’s first InnoCentive program divorces questions from answers, awarding prizes ranging from $2,500 to $10,000 to not only to experts who contribute the best answers but also to informed people outside the diabetes field or Harvard community who ask the best questions (submit ideas by March 1; subsequent contests will address other issues).
“There are all these people out there — they may teach 19th century English literature — but they’re smart and motivated and their kid has diabetes,” said Dr. Eva Guinan of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, director of Harvard Catalyst Linkages and co-leader of the project. “For years, they’ve watched their child do something, and they’ve had no place to ask the question, ‘Why isn’t somebody looking into this?’
“We want questions as well as answers, and we need to get them from a broader community because the same old people asking the same old questions in the same old way with slightly newer technology is not moving things fast enough or broadly enough for us to cope with these incredibly complicated diseases.”
To coin a medical analogy, if Harvard’s research community is a brain, it needs to form new neural connections between areas that had previously never been connected. Complicated problems can only be tackled by a complicated organizational brain. To date, most organizational brains are rudimentary and top-down rather constructed as a neural network, the way our more evolved brains are.
“That’s exactly right,” agreed Dr. Guinan. “People talk about the really distal nodes, which is just what you just described. It’s reaching into the formerly unconnected, or poorly connected, pockets of information and knowledge that are out there, that are otherwise not wired in…. The experimental question is: How do we do that in this environment, where knowledge is the coin of the realm.”
Dr. Guinan dreams that the contest will produce creative solutions, like one that kept her awake on Monday night: How about an iPhone app with a wireless connection to heat and pressure sensors in shoes that compensate for the loss of sensation in diabetics’ feet? When diabetic patients develop unfelt sores it can lead to amputation.
Need a new nerve pathway from the foot to the brain? There will be an app for that, if Harvard’s challenge realizes Guinan’s hopes for this crowdsourcing experiment.
Dwayne Spradlin, InnoCentive president and CEO, says the medical establishment has a lot to learn from the crowd and crowdsourcing — but perhaps even more from itself.
“Research today is often about publishing,” he said. “You might wait a year and a half for peer review, and that information is not yet being shared with other groups that would otherwise be doing derivative works. Tearing down those boundaries can do nothing but compress the rates at which we drive innovation through these systems, and it is desperately needed.”
Most of the funding for this effort comes from taxpayers, in the form of a National Institute of Health grant, with additional funding from the Harvard Catalyst Program, a Harvard-lead consortium of medical organization whose goal is to “remove the barriers and obstacles to cross-institutional collaboration.”
When the United States government funds a crowdsourced social network at the oldest university in the country to make medical research more effective, it’s hard to deny that the Obama administration is making good on at least part of its pledge to bring the government and the institutions in line with the latest technology.
One reason the NIH is funding this crowdsourcing experiment is the hope that its findings will stretch subsequent research dollars further. “Focusing across teams on solving very specific, well-defined problems could crack the code on collaboration and improve the yield of all of this medical research,” said Spradlin.
But in order for this government-funded crowdsourcing experiment to work, it will have to balance seemingly oppositional forces of competition and collaboration, especially because researchers tend to work in secret in order to edge out fierce competition for corporate funding and professorships.
But medical researchers, especially young ones, have ample incentive to participate despite research’s tradition of information control. The contest offers them a chance for them to earn their stripes on the fast track. Rather than filtering their ideas through the normal chain of command, or keeping their head down focused on a few specific micro-problems for their lab, they gain access to the big questions — and full credit for answering them.
And not only are younger researchers more comfortable with online tools like InnoCentive, says Dr. Guinan, but they have a different take on the line between public and private personae that makes them liable to share and exhibit a herd mentality that makes them more likely collaborators.
“I think that younger generations will embrace these things more,” said Dr. Guinan. “The walls about what they do and don’t share is very low, and the degree to which they move as a herd is unbelievable … and they’re used to information spreading much more rapidly. It’s much harder to hang onto information and have it be private.”
Apparently, what goes for teenagers socializing on Facebook and software engineers collaborating on a movie recommendation algorithm also goes for professional medical researchers. Social networks are often thought of as a frivolous waste of time, but they may not be so frivolous after all, should they lead to more efficient medical research that saves lives.