Björn smedman in Institute 10 minutes

Welcome to the Institute

Every year about two hundred scholars are welcomed to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, USA. Former faculty include Albert Einstein, John von Neumann and Kurt Gödel. Calling it an exclusive club would of course be an understatement.

But fellowship at the IAS is not the only exclusive club in academia. Everywhere you look, from student admissions to “tenure track” positions, from grants to publications, there is great exclusivity. Why is that? I’m only guessing, but I think it’s because exclusivity, historically, has been a way to safeguard quality in the scientific discussion; back in 1930 when Abraham Flexner founded the original IAS exclusivity was the default, and there simply was no technological substitute for it in the pursuit of scientific truth and beauty.

But today there is: We now have technology that can substitute for exclusivity in safeguarding the quality of the scientific discussion. Just as an example, over a million students have enrolled in the Machine Learning course given by Andrew Ng and colleagues from Stanford University. Such courses are now commonplace and referred to as Massive Open Online Courses.

But how about Massive Open Online Research?

If technology can remove the necessity of exclusivity in higher education, can it do the same for research? If so, what technology is needed and how do we build it? These are the questions I’m trying to find answers to, and in the spirit of openness I’m doing it out in the open, with the hope that others will want to join me in this quest.

To paraphrase Abraham Flexner: The time might very well be ripe for the creation of an online institute, modeled after the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study in that it is not a graduate school training students in the known and in the methods of research, but rather an institute where everyone takes for granted what is known and published, and, each in their own individual way, endeavor to advance the frontiers of knowledge. This nascent institute would however distinguish itself from those before it by welcoming everyone to join its ranks, work collaboratively on research and partake in the scientific discussion, whether they are a tenured professor or still in high school.

A cross between Upwork and Kickstarter

So what does it take in terms of technology to replace exclusivity? A lot of the infrastructure is already in place: open access journals and preprint sites like arXiv.org make it possible to keep up with the state of the art without access to a research library; crowdfunding sites like Experiment could at least in theory provide funding (even for authors without an academic affiliation); and online collaboration tools like Overleaf and Authorea make it easy to write papers collaboratively. But finding and vetting collaborators seems like a hurdle, especially if you don’t have a day job in academia.

To me it seems like the first step should be a website that serves as a meeting place for people interested in collaborating on research, a sort of cross between Upwork and Kickstarter, but one where you back projects with your time, and where the payoff is the fame and glory of a published paper (rather than money). I for one would be willing to contribute a research idea or two, and I would also be open to working on somebody else’s idea.

Would you be interested in building or using that platform? Get in touch!