The collaborative, open-source approach that's worked so well online -- think Linux, Wikipedia, Wikileaks and countless other open source software and social media development projects -- is now being applied to scientific research.
That's the first thing that popped into my mind as I read an article about the Myelin Repair Foundation in yesterday's SF Chronicle.
The Myelin Repair Foundation is a nonprofit organization that's trying to speed up the development of new drugs and other treatments for multiple sclerosis (MS), a disabling autoimmune disease, by changing the way research is conducted.
The foundation has focused on one key aspect of the disease: the destruction of myelin, the substance that protects our nerve fibers. The organizers developed a research plan that focuses on the kinds of research needed to understand how myelin works, how MS disrupts it, and how to repair it. Then they found scientists with the expertise needed to do that research. The researchers share their results and brainstorm the next steps. The approach is collaborative, not competitive.
That's quite different from the typical scientific (or corporate) research model. Since scientists and research institutions compete for government funding (or with other companies), most are unwilling to share their research ideas and approaches. In this model, their results may be propriety or may be kept under wraps pending publication in a scientific journal.
The result: It can take years, decades even, for promising results to work their way through the system and actually become available as a new drug or treatment.
The folks at the Myelin Repair Foundation hope to get their research far enough along that a for-profit drug company can clearly see its potential and will be willing to complete the process. They also hope other non-profits will see the merit of this approach...and help produce faster results for all the people now waiting for a treatment or a cure.