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Open Source R&D

What's the "hot new trend" in R&D? According to Bloomberg opinion columnist Alice Schroeder, it's "open source innovation," which will harness the power of crowd sourcing to come up with intelligent and inexpensive solutions to different research questions. "For corporate executives, open source innovation holds out the promise of maintaining a technological edge while lowering R&D costs," Schroeder says. "Open sourcing may also be the best hope for the US to regain its toehold as the world's R&D capital." The hope is that R&D crowd sourcing can build on the success of the software crowd sourcing movement, and solve problems faster than any one lab or person could, she adds.

But the solution could also present another problem — if companies, labs, and the government can get scientific breakthroughs "on the cheap," Schroeder says, that may devalue the work of scientists and engineers. If that happens, it may put even more of a ceiling on researchers' salaries or lead to PhDs being paid "by the piece" instead of receiving a full salary with benefits, she adds, which may cause bright minds to turn away from science and to something more lucrative. "If the new R&D marketplace favors the multi-skilled, entrepreneurial risk-taker, what happens to the cerebral egghead locked in a lab who thrives in a sheltered environment? How will it affect the cost of acquiring a doctorate, and the lifetime earnings of a graduate? What does this mean to academia, which is already facing formidable financial challenges?" Schroeder asks.

University of California Berkeley professor Henry Chesbrough says science may soon follow the "Hollywood model" of operation in which producers, directors, actors, talent agents, and all the other workers required to make movies work as specialty subcontractors and collaborate with each other on individual projects. This replaced the old system where actors were contracted to specific studios, Schroeder says, much like today's closed research labs. "In the process [of changing models], [Hollywood] became, and remains, the global leader in commercial entertainment. If a similar system is the best … the R&D world will adjust, and we should welcome it," she adds.

The Scan

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