Sunday, July 7, 2013

An Hourglass representing Research and Technology

The programming we choose to do in our team is like the neck in the hourglass representing life science research and technology:
  • There are many grains of sand above us. Those represent all the software tools developed in life science research.
  • There is a large void below us. This represents the need for widely applicable tools in the life sciences.
  • At the bottom there are also grains of sand. They are well settled. These represent the current technology: commercially available tools and well-serviced open source packages.
How does the sand get from the top to the bottom? Via the neck of development. It is narrow; only few academic tools make it to the bottom. The flow through the neck is powered by:
  • push: a few academic groups that have the capability and capacity to make their tools available
  • pull: a few companies that look far ahead and are able to see and use the potential of an academic tool
In our hourglass of life science tools, new sand is being added at the top all the time. And most of it overflows the beaker after a while. Some tools never deliver what the author thought they would do. Some are made to solve a single problem and rightfully abandoned when that is done. But many tools are published and left as orphans. Only a selection of tools that promise to be useful for a larger audience ever make it to the neck.

In practice, the neck is too narrow. There are many more valuable tools than are taken up. A team like ours can help to make the neck larger by making existing research tools applicable for wider use as a service to life scientists with a clear need (we call it professionalization). But it is sometimes hard to convince funding parties to pay for this. It is also hard to convince researchers to work on making their software better: professionalization does not generate new high-impact papers. We work on convincing the funding parties that it is better to professionalize existing successes than to reinvent them using research money. And we work on convincing the scientists that professionalization of their output will lead to higher citation scores on their existing publications.

Science wants novelty. And the current Dutch finance climate is directed towards applied science, towards innovation in society. Look at the picture, and you can see that these are hard to combine. Innovation starts where novelty ends. The only way to make the combination is to include development.

Photo by graymalkn on flickr