Scientists need to move fast and break things

Research labs should take a page from the tech companies

By Ijad Madisch

The scientific method isn’t just for the lab—it works well in a tech company, too. Just like in science, developing a new idea starts with a hypothesis, experiments and iteration. The main difference is that—at least in my experience as both a scientist and a CEO of a start-up—the tech company implements results faster.

That’s why I’m making a call for science in real time; for a move fast, break things and talk about it mentality at the lab bench. If scientists shared their work earlier and got productive feedback from peers at the right time, they could work more efficiently. Then they could come up with solutions to problems that society will have to deal with in the future, like energy shortages or epidemics, faster.

I define science in real time as always sharing what you can now. Results, methods, questions, failures and everything in between should be published immediately with unique identifiers and time stamps to make clear who discovered what and when, alleviating the fear of being scooped. This would provide a window into scientists’ work as it unfolds and open new opportunities for collaboration, because researchers could see what peers are currently working on.

This is what helps developers develop products faster, too. In most tech companies I know, everyone can see what everyone else is working on all the time. Engineers and other teams collaborate and benefit from one another’s unique skill sets and perspectives. They release their results and iterate on alpha and beta versions together with their users. There’s a sense of urgency to launch new features quickly because tech companies depend on their products being used.

It’s puzzling that whereas the steps scientists and techies take are so similar, scientists wait so long to share results. In science we often only see results after they have been published, following years of tests, negative and positive results, peer review and scrupulous editing. If I as tech entrepreneur expected ideas to be as perfectly formed before I felt comfortable sharing them, I would still be deciding on my company’s name, nine years after I founded it.

So why do scientists hesitate to get their work out there? For one, their salaries, at least in an academic setting, don’t depend on sharing the results of their work fast. Their salaries depend on their reputation from publishing perfect results and then being recognized, often years later, with citations from their peers. Sharing seemingly unfinished research that someone could publicly criticize could make them vulnerable.

It takes a shift in the scientific mind-set for sharing unfinished work and failures to not be a risky career move—but an important part of the process. Failures, if seen in real time, could not only stop another researcher from making the same mistake but could also save a scientist from wasting their own time if a mistake is pointed out to them early. Beyond that, so-called failures are discoveries in disguise. Looking at everything that hasn’t worked will inevitably eventually lead researchers—or big data analysts, in the future—to something that does.

To overcome barriers to sharing valuable information, we need to change the way scientists build their reputations. We need to provide them with recognition for the work that will help drive discoveries in their fields, regardless of whether it came in the form of a negative or positive result or “just” a quick update they shared along the way. After that we can hopefully get scientists to ship fast and break things, and speed up scientific progress for humankind.

This article originally appeared on Scientific American.

Featured image courtesy of Queen's University.