29 September 2004

Research, Intellectual Property, and Innovation

There is an interesting article (“Grant Givers Turn More Demanding”) in today’s Wall Street Journal about the way that grant donators for medical research are forcing research scientists to collaborate with other donation recipients to work more efficiently toward effective treatment for targeted conditions. This apparently is a shocking change of pace for medical researchers who are used to dealing with the rather untimely process of making a discovery, confirming the discovery with further tests, generating a a journal article, submitting it for peer review, revising the article to fix criticisms, resubmitting it, waiting for acceptance, waiting for it to be printed, and only then does the information become available for other researchers. This obviously isn’t an ideal model for rapid development and discovery.

This ties in a way with an article a friend pointed out about how the bubble proved small teams tend to be more efficient for accomplishing tasks. I think the combination of these two suggests there is certainly a way to do the small team concept the wrong way. That is, with the balkanization of small teams comes a huge reduction in efficiency. While the small teams may be very productive internally, the lack of intellectual discourse on the subject can become a substantial obstacle to boosting that productivity to the next level and a huge obstacle to innovation. You get a vast amount of duplicated work where there isn’t sufficient communication and shared effort.

The open source community tends to have an aversion to this sort of secrecy as well. There was a great deal of anguished discussion in the FreeBSD project when development was taking place in a Perforce environment that wasn’t accessible to some of the developer community. This discussion and the outfall of having “owners” of subject areas within the project wound up driving talented developers away to form their own projects when the “owners” weren’t receptive to outside input and work on “their” property that was held in quasi-secrecy. It is interesting to note that by keeping their projects more open some of these forks have wound up producing a lot more and being more innovative than their slower moving cousins.

There is probably a middle ground somewhere which rewards the discoverers appropriately, but doesn’t derail the innovation by having one discoverer try to solve the whole problem from beginning to end. It is good to see some important medical research work this direction though, by having multiple small teams of interested parties building off each others work. It is probably a model that could be emulated with a great deal of success elsewhere.

No comments: