Few things in research are more exciting than watching ideas build as one person augments the thinking of another. Each can arrive at a place unanticipated and impossible from lone thinking. I feel almost euphoric when this happens. It may be even better than a bowl of hot menudo sprinkled with onions, lime, and oregano for giving me a deep sense of well being. We meet often with our lab group members and regularly see wonderful discoveries and new approaches emerge. Even more often are the meetings among the members themselves, informally at lunch, or over the lab benches.
Why is this so rare across lab groups? Are we inhabiting an archipelago without any boats? Do we have nothing to gain from extended scientific discourse across lab groups? Is my own department so diverse that we have too little in common?
Further adding to the puzzle is the extensive collaboration every one of us has with investigators at other institutions, often thousands of miles away. I suppose adding distance greatly enhances the possibility of choice, but also cuts down on informal serendipitous innovation.
One of the reasons I have been thinking about this is a recent post by Cin-Ty Lee on his earth science department. He was recently involved in a seminar that involved much of the department, following what he calls a CIDER format and describes it like this:
Because we have the most integrated earth science department in the world (it’s really true – I’m not biased here), the discussions have been simply amazing. Where else in the world besides Rice University can geophysicists, petrologists, geochemists, atmospheric scientists, structural geologists, geomorphologists all come together as one happy family to discuss science over a common goal. And this happens all the time, and that’s key. So already, with the students and the faculty, we are headed into new directions. Things could not be more exciting.
The idea that extensive conversations with others in your own department could head you in new directions is really fascinating. So why don’t we do it? It isn’t that we don’t get together often. We have faculty meetings, department seminars, even retreats of the various programs, cutting across departmental lines and including the medical campus. Yet all of these have a format that doesn’t exactly encourage collaborative innovation. Science tends to be presented in talks where questions generally come only at the end. Posters are equally one-sided. In this very Midwestern department, questions that are too probing are discouraged. We are in Garrison Keillor country, after all.
One way to get people to collaborate more widely is used by NAKFI where a million dollars are given out to the best proposals following a meeting of small groups with no talks at all past a plenary. Should our departments give out seed money for new within-university collaborations? Maybe it doesn’t take money, but just a change in culture.
Perhaps departments should have a metric that indicated what fraction of publications annually involved people from more than one lab group. Students might then choose to attend those universities with higher scores, because that is where they will get the most exciting education. I hope that my own department and university will discover a way to do well in such a metric. I think we would all gain.