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Focused Research Organizations

One of the ideas I worked on recently that would have fit well on this blog was Focused Research Organizations. Focused Research Organizations ended up getting published and then funded (see the links below), but I'm including a very brief summary here for potential blog visitors.


The general concept is that academic papers incentivize some kinds of scientific behavior, in particular the style of scientific behavior characterized by one or a few individuals ("first authors") working in isolation to achieve a first discovery or a first proof of concept of a new technology. Any project that requires highly coordinated efforts (e.g., more first authors than allowed by Nature or Science) or that requires work to ensure reproducibility or robustness beyond the minimum necessary for publication in Nature or Science is intrinsically hard to pursue in the current academic structure, because it requires pushing postdocs to work that is not aligned with their incentives (i.e., work beyond what is necessary for a paper, or work on a paper with many first-authors, where their contributions are diminished).


Some large-scale, highly coordinated projects can be pursued by companies, but only when there is a direct profit motive. We invented FROs to enable research on large-scale, highly coordinate projects with no profit motive. In essence, FROs are stand-alone organizations, independent of academic institutions, that are motivated to achieve predetermined milestones on a well-defined scientific project. They are funded at the level of a Series A biotech startup ($50M-$100M) and exist for a predetermined amount of time (e.g. 5 years). FROs should enable top individuals to work on highly ambitious projects as part of a large team with ample resources for a defined period of time. When they work well, they will generate the kind of field-moving advances that would not be possible in academia, and that will open new avenues for exploration and advancement. Adam Marblestone and I proposed the FROs in the summer of 2020, and three FROs have now been funded (see links below).



I think that the general notion that there may be other kinds of scientific behavior that are not incentivized by papers, but that could be incentivized by different incentive structures, is a powerful one. There is a burgeoning community of people who are thinking of new ways of incentivizing and funding scientific and technological research, and I have begun to refer to this "field" in general as "Innovation Engineering," i.e., figuring out how to engineer environments I expect that we will see an explosion of new ideas for funding different kinds of science in the coming years, and I expect to write a longer post about innovation engineering in the near future.


The first proposal of focused research organizations is in chapter 8 of my thesis: https://dspace.mit.edu/handle/1721.1/123401


This was then merged with several ideas Adam Marblestone had been working on, into the following Day One whitepaper: https://www.dayoneproject.org/post/focused-research-organizations-to-accelerate-science-technology-and-medicine


In October 2021, three FROs were funded by Schmidt Futures and Astera. Here is Schmidt Futures' announcement: https://www.fastcompany.com/90684882/these-focused-research-organizations-are-taking-on-gaps-in-scientific-discovery


They are described here in a tweetorial: https://twitter.com/SGRodriques/status/1447976925624999936

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