Enter citizen science

All opinions my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk.

h/t to @engagedethics for the heads up.

What do you think of when you think of citizen science?  Maybe dads buying Geek Dad and helping their kids build Lego robots that can manipulate a lego binary clock.  Maybe people tracking their health, thoughts, bodies, or other things in a really granular way in an effort to get at their quantified self.  Maybe hobbyists building and flying drones to sample atmospheric particle levels or track neighborhood traffic patterns.  Maybe patients groups banding together and funding research into cures, like the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation did with Kalydeco.  Maybe birdwatchers helping researchers track the migration patterns and populations of North American birds.  Maybe it’s something else, something you know about or have heard about or are planning to do right now.  Choose any or all of the above and you’re completely right.

Because citizen science, like a lot of movements these days, isn’t something legislated or codified or directed from on high. It’s something organic and crowd-based and bottom up, and it’s going on everywhere.

This is the world that’s being enabled by technology.  Whether it’s 3D printing, DIY Bio, computer modeling, personal monitoring or other kinds of tools, the barriers to experimentation are falling rapidly, and interest in figuring stuff out is on the rise.

The Citizens Science Association has been working on ways to support this new way of doing science.  They’ve been convening groups to look at topics like Governance, Conferences, ways to publish, and ways to communicate via other means.  There will be a webinar on September 17th to report on progress and it sounds like a worthwhile thing to listen to.  I haven’t been involved in the Association, but I’m planning to listen in.  Because technology keeps lowering the barriers to entry, and I’m really excited to see what comes out.

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Internal and external motivation and the GSK big-bonuses-for-a-successful-drug initiative

All opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk.

The story in the Times of London about GSK’s new strategy for incentivizing its R&D teams by rewarding millions (yes millions) of dollars to deserving members of the team that gets a drug to approval has provoked a flurry of responses.   You can see posts from Derek Lowe, John LaMattina, and David Shaywitz that do a nice job of summarizing why this seems like a really bad idea in a lot of ways.  I don’t want to restate their arguments, other than to agree wholeheartedly that rewarding the lucky scientists will overall disincentivize researchers, will be difficult to administer fairly especially given the collaborative nature of biomedical research and the long, long timeframe for a drug to be approved, will have a great likelihood of upsetting and causing hard feelings in employees, and also misses the point that motivation is hardly what’s lacking in R&D these days.

I’d like to touch on that last point with respect to what I feel is particularly worrisome in this:  the complete externalization of motivation on the part of scientists, and the downstream consequences for ethical behavior and human health.  A recent survey commissioned by the Law Firm of Labaton Sucharow suggests that ethical standards on Wall Street are troubling.  About a quarter of respondents had observed or had firsthand knowledge of misconduct at their companies, and about a quarter also admitted they would engage in insider trading to make $10 Million if they thought they could get away with it.  If these GSK-type bonuses become the standard in BioPharma R&D, will we see a rise in unethical behavior on the part of scientists?  And could that lead to endangerment of human health, with clinical trials performed on compounds that are pushed farther than they should be because the R&D team is looking ahead to the possible prize?

I remember a mentor at Merck asking me after my first year how I liked my bonus.  I responded enthusiastically.  He nodded, smiled a  little and said, “Enjoy the feeling.  Because next year it won’t be the same.  It’ll just be something you expect.”  And he was right.  We talk about the perks of working for BioPharma, but there’s actually a cost to being in an environment that provides the kinds of lavish benefits we get in industry.  It can cause the personal source of motivation to shift from internal to external rewards.  Ultimately, for people who are creative, I think the best work is done when internal motivators are a strong part of the driving force–something Daniel Pink describes in his book Drive.  It’s why I think games work so well as a tool for getting things done.  They tap into internal motivating factors.  After all, no one (other than World of Warcraft Gold Farmers and the like) spends hours playing a game because they’re being paid to. We should not be trying to make an engaging, exciting pursuit like research into just something we do because it pays the bills.

Girls, G.A.M.E.S., STEM and fun

There’s a lot of serious work going into understanding fun.  And for good reason.  If a game is fun it can make a developer millions of dollars.  And if it’s not…  The element of fun is also the underlying concept behind the rise of gamification approaches in business.  You know that a concept has entered the mainstream when it gets satirized in Dilbert.   Companies are experimenting with adding game-like elements such as competition, leaderboards, interactive simulations, and other similar innovations to the workplace.  Since humans enjoy games and games act to engage peoples’ attention, the theory is game-like features (or outright games) will help companies be more efficient, train more effectively and even drive innovation.

And the key element is fun.  Something about the alchemy between the participants and the system has to work in the right way to trigger the sensation of pleasure and interest.  Without it, the leaderboard withers, participation lags (or worse, gets mandated which is a death knell for fun), and the investment doesn’t pay off.  There’s a nice post over at techcrunch (HT @geoffclapp) dissecting the concept of “hafta” versus “wanna,” which I think is one of they important elements underlying fun.

I’ve been thinking about this in the context of a recent initiative put forth by Northeastern University, in collaboration with the Institute for Systems Biology, the National Girls Collaborative Project, and others.  The very bold, very exciting goal is to build a large, public-private collaboration that will create games that interest girls in the science, technology, engineering and math fields (STEM), and that will increase the probability that girls continue into STEM careers.  That initiative, appropriately, is called Girls Advancing in Math, Engineering and Science (G.A.M.E.S.).

At this beginning stage, there are many clear challenges ahead and no one is denying that a lot of effort and coordination will have to take place for this to have a shot of working.  I attended their kickoff meeting and volunteered to be part of their researching efforts, because I’m interested in seeing how these games will be developed to try and make them appealing and fun for girls.  Already at the first meeting it was clear there will be some healthy debates about how to do that, whether girls really do get different kinds of fun from their games, and also how to prioritize fun versus more educational goals such as showing girls that research involves more failure than success and how that’s okay.

I expect it will be interesting. I expect to learn a lot about games and tools for measuring subjective information.  I hope others check it out and get involved.  It’ll be fun!  And if it isn’t we’ll want to figure out why, because that’s the kind of data this project really needs in order to be a success.

Coda:  For another take on the strange power/fascination of games, check out his New Yorker story about maybe the worst video game in the world–and how it’s led to over a million dollars in charity donations.  And yes, I realize this game is not in any way, shape or form, “fun.”

Undervalued assets in biopharma hiring: Adaptability

All opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk.

A night of fantasy baseball goes horribly awry

This season I had a spectacularly poor fantasy baseball auction draft.  It was my own fault.  For those of you unfamiliar with fantasy sports, a group of friends create teams by selecting players from a real sports league and track their performance over the season.  The better your players perform, the better you do in your league.  Many leagues, like ours, select players by means of an auction draft.  Everyone gets a certain amount of virtual money to bid on different players, and you use that finite amount of money to fill out your roster.

On the night of our draft, because I had made plans to go out, I set up the auction software with a bunch of default values for different players.  Basically, amounts that I was willing to bid up to for each.  This is called robo-drafting.   I thought I’d set my boundaries well.

I was wrong. Continue reading

Drug Development: Let’s Play!

This post appeared originally in Xconomy on March 21, 2013.  The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk.

My son is addicted to “Let’s Play” videos on YouTube.  You watch videos that take you through level after level of a video game, giving you a preview of what’s to come, or, in my case, a peek at a level I’ll never be skilled enough to reach.  Stupid Bowser.  But anyway.  This is just a small example of how games have permeated our lives.

Here’s another: late last year Boehringer Ingelheim made a splash by releasing a Facebook game, Syrum.  In the game, which combines aspects of trading card games and building games like Farmville, players try to develop drugs.  They can compete or collaborate with friends as they try to get their drugs to market.  A big question Boehringer Ingelheim faced, though, was Why?  It seemed incongrous for a Pharma company to put out a game. What was in it for them?

John Pugh, Boehringer’s Director of Digital, says it’s more than just PR and sees it as a platform that can expand beyond the initial iteration; it could create a new venue for conversation between Boehringer and its stakeholders.  He’s also suggested that “it becomes a problem solving platform, an educational platform and an engagement platform.”  Therein I think lies the real hope for Boehringer:  that by engaging enough people in the game the players will discover the strategy(ies) that will help pharma survive in an increasingly difficult and competitive business environment.

How would this work?  Take a step back and ask what games and game-like elements in the workplace are good for.  It’s already recognized that adding game-like elements to mundane tasks like training can increase participation, engagement and retention.  I just went though the most enjoyable health and safety training of my research career in which our trainer framed the exercise as a round of Jeopardy.  But people involved in Serious Games know there are more potential payoffs for adding game-like elements to a wide variety of industries.

Beyond training, there are three areas I see games as aiding drug discovery.  The first, and one that’s gotten a fair amount of attention over the past few years, is the use of research games like Foldit, eteRNA, and Phylo for biological discovery.  These games tap into the interests of tens of thousands of players to tackle real-life problems like protein- and RNA-folding, and DNA alignments.  They utilize elements like leaderboards, forums, feedback and a sense of purpose.  You can get bragging rights over your friends and help cure HIV!  These games are solving difficult problems in biology without the need for formal scientific training among its participants.  It’s not hard to see how companies facing problems like solving the structure of a potential target or optimizing the fold of a therapeutic siRNA could benefit from a collaboration with these research game designers.

The second area for games relates to Syrum–or what I suspect it’s being used for, anyway.  The information about how people play games may turn out to be an extremely rich vein of creativity and innovation.  As Andrew Phelps at the Rochester Institute of Technology has described, watching people play games demonstrates just how innovative people can get when faced with a constrained environment but a strong desire to accomplish an objective.  They’ll do things like repeatedly killing themselves in an adventure game so they can lay their bodies out to spell short messages to their friends when normal writing materials aren’t available (bodies often take a while to disappear, and you often re-enter a game at the same place you died).

I haven’t played Syrum yet–it’s Europe only right now, and also I’ve not yet fallen into the Facebook vortex. But given Syrum’s reported complexity, it sounds like Boehringer has added a lot of elements that reflect real challenges in drug development, discovery through launch.  I suspect Boehringer is storing every move made by every player–every alliance, every virtual hire, every step forward, sideways and backwards–and will mine that data continuously for strategies on how the process of drug development could be done better.  They’ll track the best players, and maybe even offer them jobs.  They’ll also continue tweaking the parameters.  Boehringer has said they want to launch different versions for different parts of the world.  I would bet some of the key variations will reflect the very different regulatory environments faced in different countries. Winners in one area may end up with very different strategies from winners in another.  So by mining the data, Boehringer also prepares itself for different scenarios.

There’s a reason the military invests heavily into various kinds of games and simulations. Military history is a stark reminder of the uncertainties of combat (after all, all it takes is one nail).  War games have been around for centuries.  Now, in an increasingly complex world, it’s even more important to simulate as many possibilities as is reasonable, to increase the odds that when the unplanned happens (and it will happen), the commander or soldier or chief executive or manager wiill have seen something like it before.  Drug developers (or any industry, really) are also subject to uncertainties, forces outside of their control and would benefit from a greater exploration of possibilities–the proverbial Black Swans–and how to react to them.  As an example, a recent article in the Financial Times describes some nice examples of how online adventure games are providing useful venues for observing and testing economic theories.

The last area where I see games as useful for drug development has to do more with behavioral psychology and the environment we live in.  Drug development benefits from the large number of scientists involved.  Not to generalize too much, but many of us are Geeks.  And, as described by Ken Denmead in his great Geek Dad books, a Geek is at that perfect intersection between Knowledgeability, Obsessiveness and (some) Social Skills.  Because of this, scientists tend to be smart, engaged in their work, and often willing to work far beyond normal working hours because it’s all just so darn interesting!  But still.  Having a laser-like focus on work takes a lot of mental energy.  Games can make that easier.

Many people are familiar with the concept of Flow, proposed by  Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.  The characteristics of Flow–engagement, satisfaction, positivity, optimal performance–coincidentally are many of the same characteristics one sees in people playing great games.  I would argue that by incorporating more games and game-like elements into our research, we will tap into a more efficient, engaged and productive workforce.

I can’t stress the engagement part enough.  We live in an age of endless distraction.  People are never out of internet contact.  Ever.  If they tell you they are, they’re lying.  Attention has become one of the most valuable commodities in the workplace.  Creating an environment that increases engagement through incorporating game-like elements raises a bulwark against distractions and makes a more efficient, focused and effective workforce.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get my son to help–I mean, help my son get Bowser out of that castle…