Science is Shaped by Wikipedia: Evidence from a Randomized Control Trial

Co-author: Douglas Hanley

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rib Best Paper, Druid 2018

As the largest encyclopedia in the world, it is not surprising that Wikipedia reflects the state of scientific knowledge. However, as one of the most-accessed websites in the world, including by scientists, it also has the potential to shape science. This paper shows that it does.

The introduction of concepts on Wikipedia, and the interconnection of those ideas to related topics, leads to increased usage (and interconnection) of those same ideas in the scientific literature. This paper demonstrates these both correlationally using a Big Data analysis and then causally using a randomized control experiment.


Who tries (and who succeeds) in staying at the forefront of Science? Evidence from the DNA-editing technology, CRISPR

Co-author: Sam Zyontz

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In 2012 researchers at UC Berkeley, MIT and Harvard introduced the gene editing technique CRISPR/Cas9. Since then it has become a cornerstone of genetic engineering, allowing scientists to ‘cut and paste’ DNA segments with an ease that has been transformative. In a recent Nature article, a geneticist from Cornell with 30 years experience, John Schimenti described it this way, “I’ve seen two huge developments since I’ve been in science: CRISPR and PCR…

CRISPR is impacting the life sciences in so many ways” (Ledford 2015). Since 2012, the number of published papers mentioning CRISPR went from less than 200 per year to more than 600 per year in 2014 (Ledford, 2015). Likewise, patenting and financing of biotech companies involving the CRISPR technology has also exploded (Ledford 2015). In 2012, there were fewer than 25 patent applications mentioning CRISPR but by 2014 there were over 150 applications. New biotech firms founded around the CRISPR technology had raised over $150 million by the end of 2014.

Our project looks at how CRISPR spread throughout the synthetic biology community and how it affected the productivity of researchers.


Gene synthesis allows biologists to source genes from farther away in the tree of life

Co-authors: Aditya Kunjapur and Philipp Pfingstag

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Gene synthesis is a powerful genetics tool that has been improving rapidly. This paper shows that bioengineers are increasingly using it to create organisms where functionality from one organism can be brought into another, in a form of genetic biomimicry. This paper also shows that as this tool improves, it is being used to draw genes from ever-farther away in the tree of life.


Could Better Tools Reverse the Long-Term Decline in Innovation per Researcher? Evidence from the creation of new genetic parts

Co-authors: Philipp Pfingstag, Aditya Kunjapur, and Joachim Henkel

With new technologies arriving every day, one might be forgiven for being optimistic about the state of innovation. But a closer look at how we generate innovation reveals a worrisome trend: innovation per researcher is falling – and has been for decades. This hasn’t been easily observable in high level statistics since per-researcher declines in productivity have been compensated for by increasing numbers of researchers. But such an approach cannot be sustainable in the long-run, and so other solutions must be sought.

This paper asks whether the development of better tools could be sufficient to halt (or reverse) this trend. By definition, better tools allow scientists to do more and better work – that is, to be more productive. They also help to counter what Jones (2009) called the ‘Burden of Knowledge’, the ever-increasing amount of knowledge needed to reach the frontier of science. So the question is: can tools can have a sufficiently large positive effect to reverse the overall decline?

We look to measure the effects of tools in an area where they are changing rapidly: the creation of new DNA sequences. This foundational technique in genetics has been revolutionized over the past 30 years by DNA synthesis, a tool which allows vastly more flexibility in the sequences that can be created and which has been improving exponentially.