The "pop-up" store concept that is increasingly popular for seasonal retail such as Halloween and Christmas is starting to make inroads into science research. Imagine the cost savings of not having to invest in high overhead and purchase expensive lab equipment, but be able to rent or borrow on an as-needed basis or, better yet, just create a virtual lab environment on a computer.
The tech business has benefitted from this concept for decades. Many of the world's largest technology companies, now worth billions, had modest beginnings. These include garages (Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Google, Amazon), dorm rooms (Facebook, Dell, BOX), restaurants and coffee shops where young coders have access to free Wi-Fi and a steady supply of caffeine (PayPal, Foursquare, Yelp), a motel room (Microsoft) and even obscure locations like a park (Twitter) and bus station (Dropbox).
Let's be clear on one thing, for some fields of research, especially certain physics and bio disciplines, virtual labs will never truly replace a well-stocked and equipped laboratory with a full complement of research staff. However, for early start-ups or smaller academic facilities with limited resources, cloud-based virtual scientific infrastructure can be a tremendous asset. There are a number of market places for contract research, for example, that allow researchers to order experiments from some of the world's best labs. But inspiration can happen anywhere, anytime, so access to web-based systems for provisioning computational experiments, on-demand high performance computing services and, more recently, scientific discovery by artificial intelligence creates enormous potential for new breakthroughs.
As a business, the scientific community is under the same pressure as any other entity. Overhead needs to be kept to a minimum, and the ROI on funding dollars is under the microscope. The recent Research and Development Efficiency Act passed by the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, is an attempt by the US Congress to address inefficient use of federal funds for science research. With researchers spending an average of 42 percent* of their time on administrative tasks, that's time and money spent not doing science.
All research funding, regardless of the source, comes with strings attached. Researchers will be confronted with more mandates from funding bodies and institutions to do more to make their research data available for reuse. The good news is that research is now more social, more collaborative, more international, more interdisciplinary and more online. This is an important shift for science. The problems we face today are global regardless of their origination. The recent outbreaks of measles and the more serious Ebola virus are a prime example of this, as well as the impact of climate change on the world's food and water supplies, and air and water pollution in newly industrialized nations. Many of these challenges are happening in developing countries with limited resources to invest in an actual science infrastructure of bricks and mortar lab space and extensive scholarly libraries. Virtual labs, access to data management and workflow tools are vital for researchers in these regions. Even more crucial is the need to know who is doing cutting-edge research in a particular field in order to find collaborative partners who can provide certain centers of expertise.
Building upon that which has gone before -- a fundamental principle recognized more than 300 years ago by Sir Isaac Newton ("If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants") -- is at the very core of research. Almost 25 percent of research time is spent consuming work done by others*. Before the Internet, if you wanted to metaphorically stand on the shoulders of giants, you had to literally stand on a ladder and pull down dozens of books and publications from the library shelf and spend hours taking notes or photocopying key pages for further reading. In the digital age, information can be found in minutes. In addition, there are a myriad of sources and platforms upon which to post, analyze, and find collaborators, as well as opportunities to create virtual work-groups on such platforms as ResearchGate, Mendeley, Labroots and Quora. Article recommender solutions that flag related published works for researchers based on their search patterns, as well as enhancements such as videos and links to lectures, all help researchers to connect to others to build important cross-disciplinary networks of support and global virtual teams.
So, for the bench scientist searching for that elusive connection to a cure, the neuroscientist trying to unravel the mysteries of the brain, or the physicist looking to the stars for clues to the universe, it maybe that the local coffee shop has the answer. Science in a café? You bet! I'll take mine with a latte and a croissant please.
* Data Ref: Elsevier Research and Academic Relations Researcher Panel study, June, 2014
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