Community research and “knowledge exchange network” for neuroscience

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The Royal Society just released a second report on Neuroscience in the Brain Waves policy series this one focusing on its relationship with education: Neuroscience: Implications for Education and Lifelong Learning. While it is a very good overview (I particularly welcome the cautious and sober approach to the results warning against “neuro-myths” – something I’m planning to address on http://metaphorhacker.net with respect to language), it is the outreach part of the report I want to focus on here.

One of suggestions of the report was the establishment of what they called the “knowledge exchange network”:

Brain Waves Module 2: Neuroscience, education and lifelong learning | Royal Society. Knowledge exchange should be increased. A knowledge exchange network is required to bridge disciplines, this should include a professionally monitored web forum to permit regular feedback between practitioners and scientists and to ensure that research is critically discussed, evaluated and effectively applied. High quality information about neuroscience on a web forum could also be made available to the general public, for example by the BBC and/or Open University. Members of the public will bene? t from learning about the changes that are going on in their own brains and how this can affect their own learning.

This seems remarkably similar to what I’m trying to describe on this site, most clearly here and here. But this could be done well or poorly. Particularly if the focus shifts on just a flat heavily moderated forum and a lot of resources are spent on flashy overproduced features by the BBC. People imagine all sorts of things under the term “knowledge exchange network”. If it includes researchers and practitioners, the flow of the exchange is typically expected to be very much unidirectional. Now, this report is asking for “regular feedback” but will the two parties be on an equal footing? In these situation, I’m always reminded of Donald A. Schön‘s “Reflective Practitioner” (one of the most misunderstood books on the subject of knowledge). Schön is basically talking about how practitioner knowledge can exist in parallel to the academic knowledge but have its own system of validity. This is the spirit in which the researchers should invite the practitioners. I’m sure the report’s authors are sincere but these exchanges are so easily dominated by the academics who have much more at stake. For such platform to succeed, they need to think very hard about how knowledge is produced in communities (about which ethnographers have a lot more to say than neuroscientists) and how this could be translated to online communities. This is something I’ve been trying to outline on this blog. This is how I would apply what I’ve been talking about here to this particular situation:

1. Set up a system where it is easy to share relatively brief snippets of information but also more in-depth contributions (and knowledge artifacts). The key is that the shared information is curated by the community of users through discussion, tagging (folksonomy), recommendations, establishing relationships with the other members. And part of this curation is done automatically through an Amazon-like system of suggestions. I think Quora could serve as a great model – but somewhat scaled down and permissive of more interlinking between strands of discussion.

Invite lots of teachers and researchers (both in neuroscience, education and social sciences) and offer them incentives to ask questions and answer them. On the surface, it’s not that different to a forum but the social and automated elements make it much easier for relevant information to come up to the top and for authoritative voices to emerge rather than authority being predetermined outside the community. It also makes it a lot easier to enter into the discussion because the cost of entry is relatively low. So in the end, it’s qualitatively different from a forum.

2. Set up a member badging system (based both on social capital on the system but also on personal endorsements) with profiles where it would be easy to identify both their community participation but also endorsements by specialists (sort of a web of trust). This could be seeded by allowing members to request endorsements from people they respect – this could go both for answers and profiles. This would amount to a kind of social peer review.

3. Set up a system of inducements for people to participate in depth. My suggestion would be microgrants (from 100-500 pounds) for opportunities to attend conferences and report on them, for people to add materials (summaries of research), curate responses for others, monitor discussions and post summaries, and most importantly actually conduct small-scale research. See below.

4. Make sure that conversations and questions can be followed up by small, practitioner-involved research. This could be something as little as trying some neuroscience-based suggestions in the classroom and reporting back (or comparing with colleagues), doing a survey of neuro-prejudices among colleagues, or even reading several research articles and publishing a summary from the teacher’s point of view (for instance by making a video on YouTube). Some of these could be done just out of interest and others funded by microgrants (e.g. to buy teachers out of teaching, buy books or equipment, etc.

5. Don’t measure the quality of information by the production standards of BBC or Open University. Measure them by practitioner involvement. The sort of thing the BBC do is far too expensive and inflexible. Plus applying modern production techniques leads to dumbing down and producing more myths about science than explanations. You don’t want the kind of understanding where somebody just sits down for an hour and watches a watered down version of what neuroscience is all about. You need people who become passionate about the subject through involvement, not seduced by flashy content. But a simple monthly podcast where a panel of the forum users talk about the most exciting things happening in the community would probably be great (the sort of thing the Digital Campus people do).

But finally, the research community must enter into this exchange network ready to learn and willing to make fundamental changes in what they do and how they do it. The practitioners must join to learn but their perspective must be properly valued and their contributions taken seriously. What they can offer must be seen just as valuable as hours spent in a research lab. Otherwise, this will be just an exercise in dissemination – and we know how well these work…

Update: As I was thinking more about this, it occurred to me that if the Royal Society invested in something like this for neuroscience, they would be better off investing in something that would encompass all of science (and the humanities) and provided a way to connect between disciplines (for instance, incorporating reputation points across fields – while recognizing the limits of transferability between disciplines) while also giving them space to be their own separate fields.

Now how much could developing and running something like this cost? I don’t know – £150k  if building on existing Open Source solutions to get it to beta (about 200 developer days) and another £75k a year for additional development and maybe £75k more for keeping it running? To round it up including project management and some participant grant money – 1 million over the first three years? Is this a lot given how much good a community like this could do?

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