Collaborative Science as a Path to the Future
“When the snow falls and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies but the pack survives.”
Popular media and history have long glorified the stereotypical image of a scientist as a lone individual toiling away in a tower of isolation; grappling with the fundamental questions of nature. Sometimes embroiled in mad experiments with pipettes and colorful chemicals and dissected frogs; sometimes armed with the humble weapons of a blackboard and chalk.
I believe that the following are the reasons behind it.
Globalization and ease of access in this era have made it easier for collaborations to flower. When Satyendra Nath Bose sent over his paper, from Dhaka, via post to Albert Einstein in Germany, it took weeks to see the light of day. Nowadays all one needs is a reliable internet connection, with most major collaborations conducting weekly meetings over Skype for progress updates or reporting issues.
With Early Career Researchers (ECRs), I believe collaborations are a way of stepping outside the safe, focused domains of their PhDs to apply their skills to vastly different problem sets. Encouraging collaborative research allows cross-pollination of ideas between different fields, leading to major breakthroughs. For example, the concept of machine-learning, developed as an algorithmic tool in digital space, has now grown to applications in virtually every sphere of scientific analysis.
With the current trends of interdisciplinary research, collaboration as a method of scientific research has become even more important. This allows a diverse collection of people to each bring something unique to the table which contributes to the overall goal of the project, without requiring that all participants be an expert in each and every facet. Fields like Bioinformatics, Computational Astrophysics, Material Sciences all have their roots in such kinds of collaborative research.
Lastly, the oil that burns our lamps: funding. In giant collaborative endeavors like the LHC or LIGO, it is practically impossible to secure funding from a single source or donor. To secure a substantial funding thus requires results to show for it. In terms of efficiency and resource utilization, collaborations, thus, have few parallels in scientific methodology.
The question thus remains, are the days of the Einsteins and Pavlovs gone? Is the legacy of the lone genius dead? I hope not. There still are plenty of problems that require long hard thinking, perseverance and sheer willpower, which are all the hallmarks of a lone tour-de-force that we commonly associate with individual brilliance. For the rest, collaborations help to go a long way.
Subhayu Bagchi is an alumnus of IISER Kolkata. He is currently a grad physics researcher at Ole Miss; and a games and puzzles aficionado. He also dabbles in freelancing, music and scicomm. Never perfect.
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