Google Science Fair 2011: “Science connects the world”

Posted by Rory on February 28th, 2011 @ 4:44 pm

Google Science Fair 2011

“Science connects the world” is the tagline of Google Science Fair 2011, billed by Google as the world’s first online science fair.  The fair is open to students age 13 to 18 from around the world, working on their own or with up to three others. Project submissions are due by April 4, 2011.  Why is the competition important?  First, it’s an interesting example of ‘online science’.  Second, it’s Google that’s doing it!

1.  An online science fair

A quick Google search (!) revealed that Google Science Fair 2011 is not the first online science fair; see for example the annual Summer Science Fair Contest.  But that’s a quibble and it’s probably fair to say that Google Science Fair 2011 is the largest and the  first globally oriented online science fair.  And the online aspect of the fair is  not just superficial: entering the competition, putting together the entry, and submitting results is all done online.mn

2.  From Google

How is it possible to do all that online?  Through using tools provided by Google, of course!  A list of 18 Google resources, things like Google Docs, Google Scholar, etc., is provided to suggest ways of putting together a submission, as well as a practical example.  Whether  you think using these Google tools is a necessary, or a sufficient, or a good, platform for carrying out an online science project is one thing.  The fact that Google has gone to the effort to organize the competition, however, is another. That in itself is interesting, and in my view significant, because it affirms Google’s belief that science is (a) important, and (b) worthy of its attention.

3.  A ‘social’ science fair?

Google Science Fair 2011 is an example of online science, and it provides a useful forum for young scientists to do science and interact with others as they do it. Moreover, Google is working with respected partners like Science Buddies, who have been providing useful resources to science students and teachers for a long time.  So Google Science Fair 2011 is clearly an initiative to be applauded.

Without intending to be critical of this (worthy) initiative, I think it is nevertheless interesting to ask the question: how would a science fair have to be structured if it was to progress from being ‘online’ to ‘social’.  The answer: it would need to have a number of key elements  missing from Google Science Fair 2011, including

  • The ability for data used in the experiments to be shared at the control of the entrants, e.g. with mentors
  • The ability for data used in the experiments to be made public after the competition has been completed
  • The ability to communicate around the experimental data, e.g. in form of an associated chat stream
  • The ability to find others who might be interested in collaborating in the competition or on other projects

With those elements we would be entering an environment where science is genuinely ‘social’ and could truly be said to ‘connect the world’.

How does funding of biomedical research and tech companies compare?

Posted by Rory on February 19th, 2011 @ 5:38 pm

If you’re not in Silicon Valley, don’t try to build the next Facebook

Mark Suster had a great post recently arguing that it’s not possible to build a tier one tech company — like Google, Facebook or Twitter — outside of Silicon Valley, because the venture capitalists in Silicon Valley are the only ones willing to ‘swing for the fences’ with large early investments in highly risky ventures which have the potential to produce paradigm-changing products or services.  Other cities don’t have the capital or the confidence to fund those kinds of ventures, Mark said.  Instead, they are forced to focus on (relatively) smaller investments in niche businesses, e.g. ecommerce in Seattle (Amazon), group purchasing in Chicago (Groupon) or internet advertising in Los Angeles.

Does it follow that you have to be at Harvard to make the next breakthrough in genomics?

The post is an interesting look at how the history of doing things in a certain way, the dynamics of funding and a network  of specialized expertise in various places drive the creation of different kinds of tech companies.  It prompted me to ask the question:  is there a comparable competitive dynamic in the funding and production of biomedical research?  There are of course some important structural differences between tech companies and academic research projects.  For starters, with academic research the working unit is an institution rather than a city or subregion, as in the case of tech companies.  The sources of funding are both different and more diverse — a group working on say a particular type of cancer research at any given university is likely to have funding from a variety of grants in addition to support from its host institution.  And with biomedical research there is likely to be a multi-institutional element since most medium to large scale research projects involve collaborations between groups at different institutions.  Finally, peer review plays a more important role in funding of academic grants that it does in funding of tech companies.

Tech companies and biomedical research projects have a lot in common

With those caveats the fundamental driver of both types of funding strikes me as being similar — to produce a positive result.  This takes the form of a successful new product or service in the case of tech companies and research which points to a promising new approach, diagnostic or drug in the case of biomedical research.  And in both cases there is fierce competition between those who are seeking funding, early stage companies in one case and groups of academic researchers in the other.

So is there a similar dynamic evident in the funding patterns of biomedical research to that Mark Suster identifies in the funding patterns of early stage tech companies? I.e. do certain large funders — the NIH, the NSF, Welcome Trust, etc., put very large sums of funding into riskier but large scale projects that have the potential to lead to paradigm-changing research results, and do they tend to place these bets with researchers in certain institutions that have a track record and a reputation that parallels that of Silicon Valley?  And do smaller grant funding bodies tend to place smaller bets with groups of researchers trying to solve niche problems?

In both cases it’s useful to understand your context and your funders

I don’t know the answer to this question, but I find it quite interesting to think about funding of biomedical research in these market terms.   If there is a direct analogy between funding of tech companies and biomedical research — even a less than exact one — it has implications for the ‘art of the possible’ for researchers applying for grants.  For example, if you are not in an institutional cluster that is the academic equivalent of Silicon Valley, it might not make sense to concentrate on game changing research.  In any event, in virtually all circumstances it would make sense to have a good understanding of the track record and expertise of the cluster you are in so that you can play to its strengths in crafting and presenting grant applications.

Belated reflections on Science Online 2011: Four themes stand out

Posted by Rory on February 14th, 2011 @ 3:27 pm

It’s hard to believe a month has passed since Science Online 2011.  Stimulated by the adrenalin rush that came from being even a virtual participant, I planned an immediate post to capture my thoughts while they were fresh.  Events have intervened and I am only now getting to this.  Hopefully the benefit of additional time to reflect will outweigh the detriment of forgotten points, not to mention ephemeral insights!

Room C:  Doing science online

I was following (from Edinburgh, Scotland) Room C, and saw the following sessions: The Digital Toolbox, Data Discoverability,  Open Notebook Science, How is the Web changing the way we identify scientific impact?, and Having fun with citations.

My first comment is a high level one — I was really pleased to see that a whole series of sessions, i.e. those in Room C, were devoted to the general area of what you could call online production and collaboration in science.  I  believe this represents a maturing of the ‘science online conversation’ (that’s obviously a misnomer because there are an ever expanding series of conversations, not just one conversation, so I guess what I really mean is a change of direction of the heart of the conversation) away from talking about science online and towards actually doing science online.

The promise held out by devoting a whole series of sessions to production and collaboration online was, for me, more than fulfilled in practice by the wealth of detail in the discussions in these sessions  about concrete ways in which people are exploring different ways, at different stages of the research process, of producing scientific output and collaborating in that process.  This seems like an even more significant affirmation of the fact that the age of doing science online, in a collaborative fashion, is not coming, but has in fact already arrived.

Four themes driving doing science online in a collaborative fashion

So what were the most interesting themes relating to doing science online, in a collaborative fashion, that came out of the Room C sessions?  For me, the following stand out.

1.  Data needs to to portable.  If users are not secure in the knowledge that they will be able to easily get their data out of a database, an application, or a piece of software, they won’t put the data in in the first place.

2.  Data must be discoverable, i.e. accessible for Google to index.

3.  Applications need to interface with as many other applications, services and databases as possible; having an  API is a practical way to make a start on fulfilling this ‘interoperability imperative’.

4.  Applications and services need to become more ‘social’, i.e. to provide mechanisms for discovering, communicating and collaborating with others with similar interests.

The revolution is already happening

It was encouraging that amidst the wealth of detail the discussions threw up around these and other themes were quite a few examples of developments — e.g. on the data repository front — applications — e.g. Mendeley’s API — and trends — e.g. citing datasets — where these themes are not just being talked about, they are being experimented with and implemented.    That confirms the point that doing science online, in a collaborative fashion, has become today’s story, not tomorrow’s.  The pace, moreover, is picking up, and here’s betting that by the time Science Online 2012 rolls around the themes and stories that were talked about in Room C will play an even more central role than they did in Science Online 2011.

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