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Blue sky thinking

Cate Swannell
Med J Aust
Published online: 17 November 2014

Thinkable.org is a website for researchers to share their work, engage with a whole new audience, and raise funds for ideas that may struggle to survive the traditional research funding system. Founder Ben McNeil is passionate about giving young, innovative thinkers a chance to follow their ideas

Doctor Ben McNeil is not the kind of scientist you would expect to see in the pages of the Medical Journal of Australia.

For a start, he’s an oceanographer. Specifically, he is a senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, with areas of interest including climate science, ocean acidification and clean technology.

Dr McNeil has been in the news lately because the website he founded, Thinkable.org, recently launched amid television news sound bites trumpeting buzzwords like “crowdfunding”.

But there is more to Thinkable.org than raising funds. In fact Dr McNeil doesn’t even see that as its primary function.

“Thinkable is a place where anyone from around the world — whether it’s a person or a business or an organisation or a researcher — can connect with scientists, and connect with the latest cutting edge ideas in a video format”, Dr McNeil tells the MJA.

“We want to create a place where we break down the barriers so people can access great researchers, innovative minds, and they can learn and fund and follow them.”

Dr McNeil has been a researcher in the ocean sciences for 17 years and over that time he has identified three “pain points” in the world of research — collaboration, funding and engagement.

“Even with the internet, collaboration is getting much worse”, he says. “That’s because we’re becoming so specialist, and so complex within that specialty.

“What we want to do is to take that back a level and create a way whereby a researcher can give us a 3-minute video snapshot of what they’ve done to give anyone watching some sort of perspective on what they’ve done and their results.

“If [the viewers] want to learn more they can obviously click on the paper and learn about the details.”

The second “pain point” is funding.

“The traditional system — peer assessment of your grant — has massive flaws in it”, Dr McNeil says.

“It’s geared towards established researchers — in other words, you’ve got a great track record and you’re pitching very incremental, very safe research.

“The problem with that is that the biggest discoveries tend to come from younger researchers, if you look at the stats. We know that innovation is getting stifled.

“Even though I’m at the forefront in my field I still couldn’t pick innovation if it slaps me in the face — you don’t know if a certain project is going to be innovative.

“You know there are researchers who are on the cutting edge and passionate and intelligent and hard-working. That’s the type of metric that’s more important than knowing that you’re going to have five papers published by the end of the 2 years.

“We’re (producing) a completely different model.”

Engagement — the ability to translate complexity into simplicity — is a major problem for many scientists and researchers, Dr McNeil says.

“If someone can’t understand the take-home thesis in a piece of research that we’ve done, then we have a huge problem, because innovation happens when we, as scientists, take ideas that have been applied in other fields and apply it to our own.

“We want to engage and show people what we do as researchers. That’s hugely important because in reality [the public] own the knowledge that is accrued, so they should be part of the system and part of the learning process.”

Thinkable.org has proven to have some unexpected side benefits, Dr McNeil says.

It is a useful resource for journalists who are looking to find simple, easy to access summaries of otherwise complex scientific papers. Teachers, too, are introducing their pupils to innovative thinkers and ideas via the website’s free access and social network-style system of “following” and “liking” researchers and campaigns.

But perhaps the biggest learning curve is being experienced by the researchers themselves.

“There are some scientists — the early adopters — who can communicate what they’re doing in a way that translates complexity into simplicity, but it’s a steep learning curve. How do you do that in 3 minutes? It’s a challenge”, Dr McNeil says.

“Video can break down barriers and engage a completely different audience.

“The audience we have when we publish a paper is maybe 50 or so colleagues but, for example, Martin Rees, a biochemist at UNSW, has already had 9000 views on his ideas in just 2 months and he’s raised $13 000 to help him continue doing his work.”

The bottom line for Thinkable.org is discovery.

“We’re about discovery — we want to discover things and hopefully benefit society.”

The full interview with Dr McNeil is available as a podcast at www.mja.com.au/multimedia/podcasts.

  • Cate Swannell


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