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A return to “bursty work”

21 March 2011 One Comment
Parris Island, S.C., barrage balloon (LOC)

Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr

What seems like an age ago a group of us discussed a different way of doing scientific research. One partly inspired by the modular building blocks approach of some of the best open source software projects but also by a view that there were tremendous efficiency gains to be found in enabling specialisation of researchers, groups, even institutes, while encouraging a shared technical and social infrastructure that would help people identify the right partners for the very specific tasks that they needed doing today.

Bursty work” is a term first used by Chris Messina but introduced to the online community of scientists by Deepak Singh. At the time it seemed obvious that with enough human and financial capital that a loose network of specialist groups could do much better science, and arguably much more effective exploitation of that science, than isolated groups perpetually re-inventing the wheel.

The problem of course is that science funding is not configured that way, a problem that is that bane of any core-facility manager’s existence. Maintaining a permanent expert staff via a hand to mouth existence of short term grants is tough. Some succeed but more probably fail, and there is very little glory in this approach. Once again it is prestige that gets promotion, not effective and efficient use of resources.

But the world is changing, a few weeks ago I got a query from a commercial partner interested in whether I could solve a specific problem. This is a small “virtual company” that aims to target the small scale, but potentially high value, innovations that larger players don’t have the flexibility to handle.  Everything is outsourced, samples prepared and passed from contractor to contractor. Turns out I think we can solve their problem and it will be exciting to see this work applied. What is even more gratifying is that the company came across this work in an Open Access journal which made it easier both to assess how useful it was and whether to get in touch. In the words of my contact:

“The fact that your work was in an open access journal certainly made it easier for me to access. I guess the same google search would have found it in a different journal, but it might have required a subscription for access. In that case I would have used the free info available (corresponding authors, university addresses etc) to try and get in touch based on the abstract.”

The same problems of course remain. How do I reasonably cost this work? What is the value of being involved vs just being a contractor. And of course, where will I find the time, or the pair of hands, to get the work done. People with the right expertise don’t grow on trees, and it’s virtually impossible to get people on short contracts at the moment. Again, in the words of our collaborator:

“Bursty work” sounds a little like how [our company] is trying to operate. One problem is moving from an investment environment where investors invest in companies to one where they invest in projects. Has any work been done to identify investors who like the idea of bursty work?

Nonetheless, its exciting to me that some elements of what was beginning to seem like a pipe dream are coming to pass. It takes time for the world to catch up, but where there is a demand for innovation, and an effective market, the opportunities are there for the people who can make them work.

[It won’t escape anyone’s notice that I’ve given no details of either the project or the company. We are doing this under an NDA and as this is someone else’s project I’m not going to be difficult about it. We make progress one small step at a time]

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