Innocentive, for those of you who don’t know, is a company/community where science types can go to get cash awards for solving problems in science. Innocentive likes to call this the ‘open sourcing of science’ which makes for good PR, but a closer description might be ‘outsourcing the R&D dept.’ As full disclosure, I’ve been a member of the community for several years and have received $10K for my chemistry solutions posted there … I think on balance it’s a great idea executed well.
But the trouble is, they believe their own PR and the write-ups they’ve received in the press (see list below). Several weeks ago Innocentive created a project to collect ‘emergency response’ ideas to deal with the oil spill. Not surprisingly, Innocentive received around a thousand and counting proposed solutions. What they did next is surprising … they dropped all thousand ideas into the lap of BP. Because more is always better, right? A quick scenario to consider:
Your car engine is on fire and the only copy of your thesis is stuck inside.
A. Your best friend comes up, details how to put the fire out and offers to help.
B. An acquaintance comes up, lists 80 possible ways to put the fire out ( some involving things you don’t have on hand, some of which might not work ) and then asks why you aren’t using one of their ideas.
Innocentive is a great font of ideas, but it takes time to sort the wheat from the chaff, to convince companies that the new solutions might work, and to test. Innocentive’s challenges usually last several weeks, starting from well defined and tractable problems. After that is a testing phase that last months. If they were working on a solution for the next oil spill, I’d applaud it as forward thinking.
If they have a working idea, put it out there … say to the media, “We’ve an idea we’ve tested and think is a great solution … but we don’t want to overburden the people out in the field who are trying their best.” Complaining to the government that the engineers at BP aren’t taking you seriously, and then to the media (see email to Innocentive members) in the middle of a crisis when you know you can’t push a solution out the door fast enough just feels like chasing ambulances for the sake of PR.
I know everyone’s feelings are running hot about the spill, so please feel free to tell me where I’m wrong in the comments. If people are interested, I’m also thinking about writing a more positive entry on Innocentive showing how it works well for undergrads.