A suggestion for YC Research: how to create a better Bell Labs

I was excited to read Sam Altman’s recent post introducing YC Research. It's a truly awesome endeavor, and it says everything that Sam is putting a significant portion of his personal wealth into it.

It seems that YCR is attempting to recreate Bell Labs. It's a great idea. However, I think it's important to note that the world has seen an incredibly powerful innovation since the heyday of Bell Labs — and that's the Internet. To create a modern day Bell Labs we should ask ourselves: Why was Bell Labs so successful? What lessons can we learn? And how can we create an institution that applies those lessons in an Internet connected world?

I recently read an excellent book, The Idea Factory. It explores what made Bell Labs so successful. It wasn’t just that they hired brilliant people. And it wasn’t just that they had long-term time horizons and gave researchers plenty of autonomy. A key success factor was that they did everything they could to encourage interdisciplinary collaboration and communication. They even thought about how they could design their hallways to encourage scientists to talk to each other! The ability of their scientists to get instantaneous feedback from a diversity of minds led to many insights and breakthroughs.

Today we're not limited to optimizing hallways in physical spaces. We now have the possibility of a model of research in which scientists everywhere work together openly over the Internet to collectively solve problems. I believe a modern day Bell Labs should be doing everything it can to encourage interdisciplinary collaboration not just within its walls, but with the entire scientific community.

YC advises startup founders to share their ideas sooner rather than later because the feedback they receive will help them develop better ideas and not waste time on bad ones. It seems to me this principle should also apply to scientists! They should share their research early and often while actively engaging the broader community.

Of course, what I'm suggesting is a far cry from how academic science currently works. Scientists today typically work offline, in silos, hoarding knowledge instead of sharing it openly. But we need to be clear — they're not doing this because it produces better outcomes for society, they're doing it because they operate under a 17th century reward system that is completely failing us. Sam mentioned this himself:

Compensation and power for the researchers will not be driven by publishing lots of low-impact papers or speaking at lots of conferences—that whole system seems broken.

This is awesome. But I would like to encourage YC to think beyond simply eliminating the perverse incentives of our current system — let's work towards a truly Internet-native model of research!

Sam, if you're reading this and you're intrigued, my startup Thinklab wants to help! We've built a platform for openly sharing research projects, but more importantly, a platform that rewards outside scientists for openly sharing feedback and ideas related to those projects.

We want to help you open up your research, and we want to give the entire scientific community the opportunity to be rewarded for helping you create a better world.


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