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How Outsourcing Will Transform Scientific Research

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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I just got back from this year’s SciFoo conference at the Googleplex in Mountain View, CA. It was a great opportunity to discuss ways to improve science with some of the brightest minds in the field. I took the chance to lead a session on my latest passion: how outsourcing is going to revolutionize scientific research over the next 5 years.

I got interested in science outsourcing because of a particular challenge I faced in my research (although I suspect many of you have faced the same challenge). Last year my research hit a roadblock when I needed to conduct experiments that were completely out of my field of expertise (immunology experiments in my case). After exhausting my personal connections I realized I needed to look externally to find someone to provide these experiments for me.

What followed was an entirely frustrating process of googling key words to try to find providers; emailing or calling dozens of labs to understand the outsourcing process, their pricing and turnaround time; attempting to compare and evaluate different providers with a complete absence of user feedback and reviews. And even when I found a provider I wanted to work with I had to pay on my personal credit card because providers were so frustrated by the speed at which universities paid them that they refused to accept my university’s purchase order.

Over the following months I shared my experience with scientists at conferences throughout the US and was overwhelmed by the level of frustration shared by others. This was clearly a big problem. But it wasn’t just scientists. At the recent Department of Defense Era of Hope conference in Orlando I spoke to many breast cancer advocates, women who have survived breast cancer and now devote their time and energy to raising money to support our research. These advocates are passionate about what we do but are also frustrated at the lack of collaboration in scientific research and the lack of progress despite immense spending. They believe, as do I, that there must be a better way to get scientists working together.

Outsourcing revolutionized the IT industry in the 1990s and 2000s and I believe outsourcing has the potential to revolutionize scientific research in the same way. But currently outsourcing in science is extremely difficult. It’s hard to find providers, time consuming to communicate with
them, hard to evaluate them and hard to pay them. Other industries have solved these barriers by creating a marketplace. I decided to do the same for science by creating a marketplace for outsourcing scientific experiments: ScienceExchange.com (Twitter).

Science Exchange makes outsourcing easy – we have just launched and are now looking to help more researchers find and collaborate with relevant researchers. Just think of how many more discoveries can be made when scientists are able to easily tap into the best resources. That’s what gets me excited!

Elizabeth Iorns About the Author: Elizabeth Iorns, Ph.D. is Co-Founder and CEO of Science Exchange, an online marketplace for science experiments. Dr. Iorns conceived the idea for Science Exchange while an Assistant Professor at the University of Miami, conducting postdoctoral research into mechanisms of breast cancer development and progression. She is passionate about creating a new way to foster scientific collaboration that will break down existing silos, democratize access to scientific expertise and accelerate the speed of scientific discovery. She received a Ph.D. in Cancer Biology from the Institute of Cancer Research (London) and conducted postdoctoral training at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine (where she retains a voluntary faculty position). She is also a recipient of the 2012 Kauffman Foundation PostDoctoral Entrepreneur Award. Follow on Twitter @elizabethiorns.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






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  1. 1. kclancy 9:52 am 08/16/2011

    This is an interesting idea. When you say outsourcing though, do you really mean collaborating? It just seems like the two ideas are getting conflated here. Or maybe it’s that the line is different by discipline… there are a few labs in my field who will do labwork for money. But for the most part, if a colleague approached me because I had a method or expertise they needed, we would work out a system where they paid for the work (and maybe personnel) but would share some intellectual credit, and thus I would be on the publication as well.

    Perhaps in other fields, the line is moved way over so only collaboration is considered appropriate, where in others sharing and collaborating is so rare that you would only outsource for money?

    Link to this
  2. 2. 700ravens 10:15 am 08/16/2011

    I run an instrument at one of the DoE user facilities. What Dr. Irons calls “outsourcing”, I call “participating in the user program” or, perhaps, “going to work in the morning”. The DoE user facilities offer capabilities that may not or cannot exist in a university or industrial lab. These facilities are staffed by experts. Access is free but regulated by a peer-reviewed proposal system.

    Granted, my background is in the physical sciences, not the life sciences, and the DoE user facilities grew out of a physical sciences funding agency. That said, the model is sound and very active. We don’t use B-school language to make it sound like somehow more profound than what it is — scientific collaboration. The user facilities have websites with clear explanations of the scientific capabilities available and clear explanations of how to participate in the user programs.

    It’s a shame that the life sciences equivalent of the DoE nano-science centers has not been developed. But it seems to be exactly what Dr. Irons is looking for, albeit without the business jargon.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Bora Zivkovic 10:16 am 08/22/2011

    See more at ‘EBay for Science’ Could Enable Outsourcing of Experiments.

    Link to this
  4. 4. a31pthink 12:01 am 08/24/2011

    Sounds stupendous! And then I’m reminded of all the Phds being churned out by India and China, and how their labs and staff can do the work much more cheaply than American labs (not sure about the quality) and I think “this is better than I thought! now I have a clearer career path to that service job I always wanted”:) Hurray globalization, hurray disruptive innovation, hurray outsourcing, hurray, hurray, hurray. It is a hell of a tradeoff, isn’t it — more efficient science for less Americans with science jobs. It was happening already, your marketplace will just accelerated the process. Now if only I could find a fiddle and a good spot to watch the rest of the American economy crash and burn.

    Link to this
  5. 5. KSF Labs joins Science Exchange – circuits + systems 3:40 pm 04/18/2012

    [...] on the transaction for their troubles. Perhaps the best explanation of Science Exchange comes from this Scientific American article by one of the founders, Dr. Elizabeth Iorns. If you’d like more information about Science [...]

    Link to this

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