Attention! Attention!

Expert attention is to creative problem solving
what water is to life in the desert:
it’s the fundamental scarce resource.

Michael Nielsen developed this idea in Reinventing Discovery, and I fully agree with him. True to the book’s subtitle, he discusses The New Era of Networked Science, where the tailored exploitation of information technology enhances and enables science beyond its traditional constraints. Hence I’d suggest it really is a book on the future of science.

Since Newton’s times, science has been the endeavour of a small number of dedicated experts (and later on of professionals who made their living by doing science). Thomas Kuhn described the mechanisms of science as they have matured over centuries, and are still employed to the present day. The traditional focus on expertise and professionalism was certainly foundational to the success of science as we know it. However, this focus places an implicit constraint on science and its ability to scale up and speed up in order to respond to emerging problems. Especially when they are complex, numerous, and evolving fast, this constraint becomes a fundamental limit.

Over the past few decades, we have observed that our problems (at societal and global scale) kept growing in numbers, while increasing in pace and size. Just think about demographic change, economic crisis, global warming, multi resistant micro-organisms, failing states, you name it. Our response to these and other truly hard problems often resembles improvised fire fighting rather than systematically developing solutions and delivering them on time.

I’d suggest that despite the best efforts to hone our skills in solving scientific puzzles (the normal science Thomas Kuhn described), the complexity, speed and multitude of our challenges are likely to outgrow our capacity for handling them. If that is true (and I do believe it is), then science as we know it is not fit for future, because the supply of scientific problem solutions exceeds the demand.

Despite the mounting pressures on the demand side, I do see reason for optimism, and that’s where Michael Nielsen comes in. If you consider science as a feeder process for an innovation supply chain, then Nielsen offers a fresh perspective on the key input and the main process of science. In order to overcome the challenges of scale and speed, he proposes original answers to two questions: How is expertise provided? And how can science be organised to best leverage the available expertise?

So, what is expertise? With only mild exaggeration, we tend to see an expert as somebody who would simply deliver the solution to a problem. All we’d need to do is to find the right expert, and that’s it. Nice idea, but rather optimistic. For one, we cannot safely assume that the solution to every problem is already known. Far from it. And secondly, if we are honest to ourselves, of course we know that the times of the universally knowledgeable polymath like Leonardo or Leibniz are gone since the Age of Enlightenment, if not already the Renaissance.

Nielsen proposes a radically different concept of expertise. Rather than the traditional idea of “knowing the solution to the problem“,  Nielsen sees expertise as “knowledge that is relevant as a contribution to solving the problem“. Expertise is not delivering a ready-made solution; it is only providing a contribution to solving the puzzle. This changes everything: neither is expertise a predetermined pool of wisdom, nor are the experts an exclusive club of enlightened individuals. Rather, expertise becomes an (almost) unconstrained resource. And everybody can be an expert, at least in some limited area (that’s what Nielsen calls micro-expertise).

It’s important to realise just how dramatically Nielsen’s approach changes what it means to contribute to scientific problem solving, even what it means to be a scientists: formal scientific training or education is not a prerequisite anymore. Anybody with an interest and a good argument can bring that to bear.  This is what Nielsen calls citizen science, which is a game-changing image. Unlike terms such as layman or amateur, which always have negative connotations and tend to belittle the contributions of the non-professional scientists, the term citizen scientist empowers everybody to be a part of the scientific enterprise. The focus on citizen actually insinuates a potential shift in the relation between society and science, between science and society. From the ambiguity we observe today to a natural symbiosis and  mutual appreciation. That potential certainly deserves some additional attention at a later stage …

For now, let’s acknowledge that Nielsen’s concept of expertise overcomes the challenge of scale: Yet at the same time, it implies and even requires a very different way of doing science. The unprecedented scale actually necessitates a different approach to leveraging the available expertise. Today’s information technology already delivers tools that support massive online collaboration. The key question then becomes: how to organise science in such a way that the right experts focus their attention on the right problems at the right time?

Today’s information technology offers the tools to organise scientific collaboration in an online environment. But Nielsen points out that networked science cannot be successful if it simply replicates conventional real-life committee work in the online world. Rather, he identifies three criteria for successful online collaboration. First, work modular – split the problem into tasks, subtasks, and subsubtasks, break it down into bite-sized chunks. Second, encourage small contributions – reduce the barrier of entry so that micro-expertise can contribute. Third, make it easy – develop a rich and well structured information commons that is attractive and easy to navigate.

Illustrating and underlining his ideas, Nielsen discusses a number of examples of online collaboration in creative problem solving within science (Galaxy Zoo  – astronomy; or Foldit – biology) and beyond (Kasparov vs. the World – chess). I certainly encourage you to enjoy these and other success stories of online collaboration by reading up the details provided in Nielsen’s book. In sum, they all demonstrate:

  • how the modular breakdown of the problem facilitates the sharing of tasks across a large number of collaborators;
  • how the collective micro-expertise of many citizen-scientists can outperform the knowledge even of the world-leading specialist;
  • how the random encounter of seemingly unrelated ideas can create unexpected insights and breakthroughs.

Most importantly, Nielsen provides compelling examples how expert attention can be managed in massive online collaboration. In essence, the experts must be given full flexibility to engage in a topic they select, to tune in and out at their own choice, to miss or ignore large parts of a discussion. At the same time, they must have the reassurance that they can return later to any piece of the exchange, including those that they previously chose to ignore. When these conditions are met, the experts can manage their own investment in time and effort and focus their attention. After all, they provide a voluntary contribution. And that cannot be forced or controlled; it can only be attracted and encouraged. As I said, it’s a very different way of doing science.

There is no doubt that in the 21st century attention is in short supply, difficult to attract, and even more difficult to keep. Hence I am convinced that attention as the scarce resource must be the pivot for rethinking and redefining what science is and how science is done.

I believe that Michael Nielsen is on a promising path to develop an alternative approach to science. An approach that makes use of the technological opportunities of the 21st century. An approach that is scaleable to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Still, a couple of open questions remain, questions like: What is the incentive for citizen scientists? What is their relation to their professional partners? How is society affected by the new way of doing science? What is the impact on the economy?

Food for further thought. And for further posts on the future of science …


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