Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Rapid Research Prototyping

Does research have to be this slow?

I find the pace of a lot of research projects frustrating.  Sure, some things just take time, but I have become increasingly suspicious that a lot of bottlenecks in research are problematic simply because we haven't taken the time to find a faster way of doing something.

This can be very challenging.  Experiments and data, for example, can be a lengthy and painstaking process.  Data analysis, simulations/modeling, discussions with collaborators and even writing the paper can all take many months to complete.  And of course we try to be efficient, but should we really care so much if things take a while to get done.


And here's why.

Consider what science is.  Science is the generation of new and improved memes for describing the natural world, whose fitness is judged using empirical evidence.  It's a memetic process.  This means that we should be thinking in terms of evolution of ideas.  And one of the key ways in which we can accelerate any evolutionary process is the shorten the generation time.  Because the sooner you get new research into the public domain, the sooner other people can benefit from it and the sooner you can get feedback.

There is also a second key point here.  Scientific ideas gain most of their value from being tested by other people.  And this can't happen until it's been released into the public domain.  We should be thinking of our newly-minted science meme as no more a than prototype, that needs to be poked and prodded by as many other people as possible before it can even start to be thought of as being robust.
The idea of spending years or decades on a scientific magnum opus is the wrong plan; getting your work into the public domain is everything.

This absolutely does not mean lowering our standards with regards to quality; there is so much research being produced nowadays that we need to avoid drowning each other in mediocre research.  But a single researcher or group can only make a science meme so good.  Beyond a certain point, your idea needs to be tested by other people.  At that point, faster is better.  Much, much better.

What form, then, should science take in the 21st century.  It should be about rapid research prototyping -  the production and dissemination of new high-quality prototype science memes, as rapidly as possible.

Publish early, publish often.  And optimise your bottlenecks.

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