Thursday, December 8, 2011

On the Importance of Negative Know-How

US Patent 398,774

I have not failed.  I have found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

Thomas Edison on trying to find the right combination of materials for a working lightbulb.

Negative know-how is essentially what doesn't work.  Negative know-how is an important part of a firm's trove of trade secrets.  Knowing which drug formulations don't work is as important as knowing which formulations do work.  Knowing the temperature range that will turn the yummy treat into a tasteless brick is important too.  

Negative know-how even has a  strange place in trade secret law which basically says that a if  an employee resigns from one firm and joins a different business you can't use what discovery won't work.  If you move on and then don't make the same mistakes as the former employer than you may have misappropriated the former employer's intellectual property.  This theory implies that you should learn from our mistakes but only at the employer where you made the mistake.  If you move to a new employer, you can't use your knowledge or maybe you have to make the same mistakes only faster.  

Negative know-how has a very important place in research.  Dissemination of negative know-how has the potential to expedite critical medical and drug research, shortening the discovery timeline for new inventions by helping investigators avoid the mistakes of others that came before; providing valuable insight that might help other investigators use other's work to explore their own hunches.  Researchers who live in the world of publish or perish rarely publish the results of work that doesn't have positive results.  This is unfortunate.  Understanding what doesn't work is just as important as understanding what doesn't.