Considering the social network for science innovation

There’s a lot of evidence these days that shows that social networks (the connections you have with your family, friends and colleagues, and more broadly with society at large) and social capital (the extent to which trust is contained within those connections) have an enormous impact on individual, organisational and societal outcomes.

It has become more and more common to apply the knowledge gained from the study of social networks and social capital to the science innovation landscape. This allows us to study the flows of science knowledge within scientific circles, between different disciplines, between scientists and policy makers, and between science and the public.

Yet a fascinating article by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger in Science has recently suggested that the expansion of social networks via a simplistic increase in the number of connections is not necessarily a good thing. In fact, if we are to develop the best possible range of useful and intelligent influences on policy, then we are probably best keeping social ties limited:

To enable innovations, especially nonincremental, discontinuous, and radical ones—which are needed, among other things, to launch successfully the next-generation Internet—may require unique policy intervention: reducing the social ties that link its coders.

Groupthink, after Mayer-Schönberger

Structural holes, after Mayer-Schönberger

Basically, it is important to pay attention to social networks, and indeed enhance our ability to utilise and learn from them – but we must also be wary of the dangers of groupthink that threaten in more heavily connected environments. In terms of the knowledge to policy discussion, this means that we must think deliberately about drawing on different sources, and building connections in intelligent ways.

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