Wednesday, April 20, 2011

On Competitive Collaboration

On Competitive Collaboration, Rolf Heuer, Seed Magazine, 11/26/10

"Fundamental science drives technology and innovation, laying the foundations for progress and improvement. It’s hard to find a company that does not rely on the fruits of basic research in carrying out its day-to-day business. Basic research is the lifeblood of industry—without it, there would be no science to apply, and any commitment to improving the state of the world would be bound to fail.

The timescale from lab to marketplace is often long, far longer than any political cycle, and for that reason basic science is rarely a top priority for government decision makers. So, under pressure to deliver quick results, science policy frequently strives to identify those areas of applied science that can mature before the next election. Thankfully, humans are curious by nature, so basic research continues to attract some of the brightest minds, and a reasonable share of the funding. It’s just as well, since without it progress would slowly come to a halt."


"Science and its technological spin-offs are not the only ways in which the LHC* community can contribute to improving the state of the world. Since taking up my mandate as director general of CERN, I have found myself responding to as many questions about the management of the particle-physicists community as about the science itself. Can you run a $10 billion project with hundreds of partners on the basis of consensus? Does competitive collaboration really work? Are there lessons for the business community in how basic science is adapting to an increasingly globalized world? The answer to all these questions is clearly yes. As well as generating knowledge and driving innovation, the way we manage “big science” can serve as a role model for a wider section of society.

Globalization comes naturally to particle physicists. Traditionally, the big labs such as CERN have provided infrastructure that has been open to scientists from around the world. Typically, there have been at least two such facilities in the world addressing the same scientific questions from different angles and engendering a spirit of collaborative competition—two words that do not usually sit comfortably together. What this has shown is that governance by consensus, fueled by collaboration and competition, can deliver outstanding results.

A deeper understanding of the universe, new technologies, and a role model for managing broadly distributed and culturally varied organizations: These are outcomes of basic science that are valuable to society. And it’s reasonable to expect the scientific community to deliver them in the short term. The most valuable in terms of sustained improvement of the world is the one closest to my heart—understanding the universe and in the process laying down a new seam of fundamental scientific knowledge for future generations to mine. Human ingenuity being what it is, the future will undoubtedly bring applications based on discoveries made with the LHC. Although, as with Newton’s gravity, it may be some time before we’re privy to all of them, and to their implications. For our children and grandchildren, however, I am sure that the wait will have been worthwhile."

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* LHC: The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is the world's largest and highest-energy particle accelerator. It is expected to address some of the most fundamental questions of physics, advancing the understanding of the deepest laws of nature. Wikipedia

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