How to Win a Science Contest

Your best strategy depends on whether you're an outsider—but don't forget the hard work.
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Your best strategy depends on whether you're an outsider—but don't forget the hard work.
(Photo: woodleywonderworks/Flickr)

(Photo: woodleywonderworks/Flickr)

In the collective consciousness, science contests are the stuff of homemade volcanos. But that's not really what they're like. This year, the 17-year-old winners of the Intel Science Talent Search took home the top prizes for software to improve drug discovery, a water quality study, and a low-cost lung-analyzing smartphone application. For the grown-ups, there are contests like the DARPA Robotics Challenge, which gives prizes for solving particularly difficult problems, like how to prevent an autonomous vehicle from crashing.

But who wins such contests, and how? One might think it's the science insiders, since they have the knowledge and background to solve difficult scientific problems. It's hard to imagine, for example, a political scientist solving a major problem in theoretical physics. At the same time, insiders can become inflexible, having been so ensconced in a particular way of thinking that they can't see outside of the box, let alone think outside it.

Outsiders should bone up on the problem they're trying to solve, while insiders benefit from thinking outside the box.

Unfortunately, most of what we know about insiders, outsiders, and scientific success is anecdotal. (Hedy Lamarr, the late actress and co-inventor of a key wireless technology, is a prominent anecdote, but still just an anecdote.) To remedy that, Oguz Ali Acar and Jan van den Ende decided to conduct a proper study. For data, they looked to InnoCentive, an online platform that "crowdsource[s] innovative solutions from the world's smartest people, who compete to provide ideas and solutions to important business, social, policy, scientific, and technical challenges," according to its website.

Acar and van den Ende surveyed 230 InnoCentive contest participants, who reported how much expertise they had related to the last problem they'd solved, along with how much experience they had solving similar problems in the past, regardless of whether it was related to their professional expertise. The researchers also asked how many different scientific fields problem solvers had looked to for ideas, and how much effort they'd put into their solutions. For each of the solvers, the researchers then looked at all the contests that person won and computed their odds of winning—a measure of creativity, they argue, since contests are judged in part on the solutions' creativity.

That data revealed an intuitive, though not entirely simple pattern. Insiders (think Richard Feynman in physics) were more likely to win a contest when they cast a wide net for ideas, while outsiders (like Lamarr) performed best when they focused on one scientific or technological domain. In other words, outsiders—who may bring a useful new perspective to bear—should bone up on the problem they're trying to solve, while insiders, who've already done their homework, benefit from thinking outside the box.

Still, there's something both groups can't do without: hard work. "[I]f insiders ... spend significant amounts of time seeking out knowledge from a wide variety of other fields, they are more likely to be creative in that domain," Acar and van den Ende write, and if outsiders work hard, they "can turn their lack of knowledge in a domain into an advantage."


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