Competition Seeks Ideas About Diabetes

Harvard Catalyst, an interdisciplinary health research organization, will launch a competition soliciting insights related to type 1 diabetes from all across the campus—an endeavor that organizers say will hopefully lead to diverse perspectives on the disease and its treatment.

The competition, which organizers emphasize is an “experiment,” does not seek solutions to diabetes research and treatment, but instead ideas from a broad spectrum of individuals—both in and out of the medical industry—that might aid research. Organizers said they hope that a set of fresh eyes will yield innovative approaches towards the disease.

“Growing evidence shows that innovation often happens at the intersections of disciplines, frequently initiated by individuals who may not have expertise in the exact problem at hand,” Harvard Medical School Dean Jeffrey S. Flier and HMS Professor and Catalyst Director Lee M. Nadler wrote in an e-mailed statement to the Harvard community.

The contest will be accepting submissions until March 1 and will award prizes of up to $10,000, including at least two prizes of $2,500.

Competitions have a history of successfully solving some of humanity’s most vexing problems—and the winners are often the most unlikely of candidates, according to Karim R. Lakhani, an assistant professor at the Business School and one of the professors behind the initiative.

For example, when the British Navy needed a device in the 1700s to accurately tell longitude, Isaac Newton claimed that navigating by stars was the only possible solution. But, Lakhani said, a watchmaker from the backwaters of Yorkshire solved the problem with a simple invention: the chronometer.

The Catalyst initiative seeks to gather ideas from those on the “fringes” of diabetes research, and from individuals who may not specifically study the disease but have reflected upon the condition, according to Eva C. Guinan, an HMS associate professor involved in the project.

The competition hopes to achieve what Lakhani calls the “democratization of science”—a goal that he said has been largely stymied by increasing academic specialization.

“There are many people who have ideas but don’t have the avenues to present them,” Lakhani said. “We feel that there are many smart people who may have thought about this or can think about it, and we’re giving them permission to think about it and then submit them.”

In an e-mail to the Harvard community yesterday, University President Drew G. Faust hailed the new collaboration as a “creative tool for enabling connections among people in the Harvard community with common interests.”

The Catalyst competition aligns with Faust’s call to the Harvard community to take an interdisciplinary approach to tackling issues in the environmental and public health spheres.

—Staff writer Elias J. Groll can be reached at egroll@fas.harvard.edu.

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