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Finding the perfect partner: how to collaborate

Torvill and Dean: the ultimate successful collaboration?

Torvill and Dean: the ultimate successful collaboration?

During my career as a practising scientist, I was always pretty rubbish at collaborating with other labs. Despite knowing that existing in a scientific vacuum was highly unsatisfactory, a mixture of insecurity, poverty of ideas and a pronounced lack of networking instincts led to my ploughing a mostly lonely furrow until, unsurprisingly, the furrow vanished and my plough was unceremoniously removed.

The problem of how to collaborate productively has been much on my mind of late. The Francis Crick Institute, the new superlab into which the CRUK London Research Institute and the MRC National Institute for Medical Research will soon be subsumed, is being bigged up as a major collaborative force in UK and worldwide science, and one of my jobs as a science information geek at Cancer Research UK Head Office is to explain how this is going to work. It turns out to be quite hard, as collaboration doesn’t always result in joint publications, which are really the only solid evidence of success. Collaboration can also be about discussing work with sympathetic and intellectually generous colleagues in an environment that encourages creative thinking (Clare Hall, the country outpost of the London Research Institute, is a fantastic example of this.)

In the outside world, extremely scary ways of monitoring collaboration are on the up. For example, one company offers “Sociometric Badges” which you can attach to your employees to monitor their proximity to each other, their location, and even their “social signals”, captured from their speech and body movements. I fervently hope that such measures never reach the scientific community, and I’m not sure they’d work even if they were tried; for a start, given the pronounced oddity of many scientists, an entirely new lexicon of “social signals” would have to be invented before any sensible analyses were possible.

The other thing about life as a scientist is that often, one needs to be solitary. By necessity, scientists spend a lot of time in front of computers and doing experiments; creative daydreaming whilst staring out of the window is also an important part of the daily grind. Time for face-to-face interactions is therefore quite limited, especially if one is constrained by the need to get home to one’s family at a decent hour. Perhaps, then, collaborative success boils down to two things: firstly, to actively seek out suitable collaborators in a targeted fashion, and secondly, to put oneself in the way of serendipitous opportunities, and to be intellectually flexible enough to act on them whenever they arise.

Multidisciplinary cross-fertilzation: Ippo the Zonkey with his proud parents

Multidisciplinary cross-fertilzation: Ippo the Zonkey with his proud parents

There are an awful lot of courses now that aim to teach scientists how to do the first of these things, and I certainly wish my generation had had the opportunity to learn how to network well and make targeted approaches; who knows, perhaps I’d still be beavering away in the lab (to be honest, I’m quite glad I’m not, but that’s another story). However, the problem of how to encourage serendipitous interactions is more intriguing.

Serendipity, which celebrates its 260th anniversary as a word this year, is defined as “making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things one is not in quest of”. Not surprisingly, as science is all about smart people making discoveries, there have been an awful lot of serendipitous moments over the centuries; Blue Skies and Bench Space has its fair share of them (see particularly the chapter on sex determination). Although one can have happy accidents in splendid isolation, it seems feasible to manufacture serendipitous conditions by throwing together scientists from different disciplines and getting them to talk to each other; this is what the Crick (and a growing number of other places worldwide) plans to do. So how might a multidisciplinary Institute be configured so that it doesn’t resemble the Tower of Babel*?

  • Overall design: the more scope there is to bump into other people, the more likely they are to talk. Make your sight lines long, and turn your corridors and stairs into sociable places, instead of barren conduits. This is particularly true of stairs – they should be cherished, not relegated to the status of fire escapes. Communal facilities are great for impromptu chats too (although not the loos, unless they’re unisex).
  • Social eating: the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge set the bar very high with its top floor canteen. Here, you could feed not only your stomach but your mind (although sometimes the density of the cheese scones did rather preclude rational thought). Therefore, have a good canteen with decent food in pleasant surroundings. Some other places to drink coffee and hang out wouldn’t go amiss either. And don’t forget to encourage attendance at seminars on allegedly esoteric topics by bribing your audience with really nice biscuits.
  • Hire the right lab heads: they should be smart, driven, generous and gregarious. Then look after them properly.
  • Hire the right postdocs and students too, and cherish them just as much as the lab heads. They are the engines of an Institute, both scientifically and socially. They’ll know each other, irrespective of whose lab they’re in, and they’ll be hanging out in exactly the circumstances required for serendipity of all kinds to be occurring.
  • Keep labs small – the bigger the lab, the less need there is for external collaboration. Mix them up a bit, but not so much that everybody feels like the last of their species.
  • Send your scientists out into the world – they’ll pick up fantastic ideas out there and bring them home.

Easy? Let’s hope so.

Not what you'd want: The Tower of Babel by Bruegel the Elder

Not what you’d want: The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder









*Slightly worried footnote: the Tower of Babel was actually rather a good example of multinational collaboration, and I’m not entirely sure what God had against it.









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