John Davis, a chemist in Bloomington, Ill., knows about concrete. For example, he knows that if you keep concrete vibrating it won’t set up before you can use it. It will still pour like a liquid.
Now he has applied that knowledge to a seemingly unrelated problem thousands of miles away. He figured out that devices that keep concrete vibrating can be adapted to keep oil in Alaskan storage tanks from freezing. The Oil Spill Recovery Institute of Cordova, Alaska, paid him $20,000 for his idea.
The chemist and the institute came together through InnoCentive, a company that links organizations (seekers) with problems (challenges) to people all over the world (solvers) who win cash prizes for resolving them. The company gets a posting fee and, if the problem is solved, a “finders fee” equal to about 40 percent of the prize.
The process, according to John Seely Brown, a theorist of information technology and former director of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, reflects “a huge shift in popular culture, from consuming to participating” enabled by the interactivity so characteristic of the Internet. It is sometimes called open-source science, taking the name from open-source software in which the source code, or original programming, is made public to encourage others to work on improving it.
The approach is catching on. Today, would-be innovators can sign up online to compete for prizes for feats as diverse as landing on the Moon (space.xprize.org/lunar-lander-challenge) and inventing artificial meat (www.peta.org/feat_in_vitro_contest.asp
This year, researchers at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the University of Washington began recruiting computer gamers to an online competition, named Foldit, aimed at unraveling one of the knottiest problems of biology — how proteins fold (fold.it).