Aug 16, 2008 - Inside 23andMe

A Matter of Motivation

by Esther Dyson

Last weekend I attended Science Foo Camp, a sort of grown-up summer camp for scientists sponsored by Google (an investor in 23andMe), Nature Magazine and O’Reilly Media.

Aside from the science itself (which is worth many blog posts on its own), one question really grabbed my attention: What motivates people to do science in the first place?


In two different sessions, I felt that scientists were ignoring one critical element of the equation – themselves.

Compelled by Curiosity

Many scientists say they do what they do out of a thirst for knowledge. Yet in the 23andMe session, I found that many researchers don’t recognize curiosity as a motivating factor when it extends to oneself.

There was a sense that of course scientists are interested in scientific data. But why would “normal people” want to use 23andMe for anything other than health care information? Many scientists at the session seemed to think that if you’re motivated by personal curiosity rather than “serious health concerns,” your curiosity is somehow less legitimate. Ironically, this is at a time when we are all struggling with how to get kids interested in science. Why not appeal to people’s innate curiosity and fascination with themselves?

I’m lucky enough to have about 30 family members plus another 80-odd people in my personal circle of friends. I love combing through the data to see how everyone compares to me and one another. (You’re welcome to add yourself! My user name is edyson, and I will accept an invitation at whatever level you set. NOTE: I will freely disclose your overall similarity to others, and your ancestry painting, but not the health information unless you give permission.)

At SciFoo, I encountered a 23andMe customer who was adopted. “The first time I saw a blood relative was when my first baby was born,” she said. “I wanted to know more about my own kids.” Did she find out anything “serious” or actionable? No, but she satisfied a lot of curiosity … and indeed, she now knows something about health issues her child may face down the road.

Data = notches on your belt

In addition to curiosity there’s money, which scientists mostly hate to discuss in public, but which is fairly well understood as a motivator for some scientists — not to mention for all the engineers, applied scientists and others who turn scientific insights into useful technology and products. 

But there’s another motivator that seems to be less understood or acknowledged. I’m not sure of the best word to describe it, but it’s an interest in being part of the effort and being acknowledged for it, sometimes leavened by fascination with one’s own data (either alone or compared with others’).

This came up in a session I attended about data-sharing. The focus was mostly data about insect species, viruses and human medical records, but it could just as easily have been genetic data.

The discussion reflected how science has changed over time. In the past, much of it was about individual discovery and experiments. But increasingly we need lots of data, collected by lots of people, to make progress. Yet scientists, and even more so scientific institutions, often operate in a climate of secrecy — at least until their results are published in a peer-reviewed journal. But what if you need the data before you can produce the results?

In science as in sports, teamwork can mean the difference between victory and defeat. At the Beijing Olympics, one of the big stories is how Michael Phelps swam to victory by following a teammate who let him swim in his wake until the final sprint, when Phelps was able to use the energy he had not expended earlier in the race to win it. That’s a benefit of collaboration.

There’s also the odd but totally understandable fact that Olympians tend to set records in competition, when they’re trying to beat another person. (I know I personally always swim faster when there’s someone about my speed in the next lane.)

Scientists aren’t immune to such effects. Biologist Dan Janzen and medical researcher/doctor Scott Layne both talked about how scientists like to add data to the pot in a way that gets them recognition for their contributions — karma points so to speak. On Flickr, you post photos. In science, you post data … and you can measure your contribution to the general welfare not just in citations, but in page views, reuse, whatever. The tools for doing that are still being developed. Meanwhile, through 23andMe and PatientsLikeMe, a social network for patients with ALS or Parkinson’s, even individuals can play by contributing their own data (medical or genetic) rather than isolating enzymes in a lab or bugs in a hospital.

Scientists may scoff, but I’m sure the evidence will show that social recognition can do a lot for science.

Esther is a director at 23andMe and investor in numerous private aviation, space and health care ventures, including PatientsLikeMe.

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