Jeremy Farrar, the director of the London-based biomedical research charity the Wellcome Trust, has written an opinion piece in the Guardian newspaper espousing the value of (international) collaborations in the face of Brexit, Britain proposed exit from the European Union.
Farrar rightfully highlights the importance of collaborations. Collaboration can be essential for many types of work, and direct interactions with other scientists are invariably valuable. His points made about Brexit are sound, too: the impact of Brexit on science in Europe—for both sides of channel—could be devastating for many.
Let me take his piece as an opportunity to diverge using his brief mention of the lone genius portrayal of science.
Many criticise the portrayal “lone wolves” as heroes, as how great science is done. The ‘lone genius’ portrayal is wrong-headed, but objections to that portrayal often miss or misplace a key point.
I worry that for non-scientists these calls against lone wolves are (mis)read as being directed at those that physically work as alone, rather than as directed at those who do not interact with the rest of science or scientists.
I doubt many would disagree with this, but I feel when this topic is raised this distinction is rarely made clear enough.
As Farrar alludes to early in his piece, those fabulous heroes of yore weren’t working in scientific isolation. Good researchers interact with the rest of science. It’s when people stop doing that, that some develop into cranks. Researchers might wish to investigate a new line of thinking, but they must compare what they are doing with all of the rest of science.
The lone wolf working in isolation of the rest of science will almost invariably be a crank, with very rare exceptions. As in perhaps one individual a century.
You don’t get to set aside, ignore, or treat uncritically great chunks of science because it doesn’t appeal to you. Consider the few opposed to vaccines, the handful with rather dubious research on aspects of GMOs, and so on. The key disconnection is their ignoring of other science, their not listening to other scientists. (Other areas would include climate change, water fluoridation, etc., but I don’t cover them.)
Some of those people are work in teams. It’s not if they are in a team or not, it’s that they’re working in isolation of the rest of science. One example might be the work of Séralini and colleagues, whose examination of genetically modified plants is badly flawed. Their research sits in isolation from the rest of related work.
Stepping back to regular settings, I feel there is a need to recognise the diversity of approaches to science and issues surrounding them.
One example that I have a little familiarity with is that some types of theoretical work are largely solo efforts, and may be best tackled that way — provided the researchers also take the opportunities to get out and talk with their peers, and take on board what the rest of science says.
Farrer and others note that any one person can only tackle so much. That’s quite true, but in a sense it is also true regardless of if they are in a large team or do their work as one person. An equally large loss, I think, is when it is not easy for researchers to find peers to talk to who genuinely understand their work. Quite apart from the loss of practical feedback, it’s socially very isolating.
In the earlier days of computational biology (my field), computational biologists were often part of a biological science departments and worked on projects with experimental teams (as they still do) with no computational colleagues who had any idea of the challenges their work faced. This issue is likely true for many technical specialists today, even within large institutes.
Conversely there are problems that simply cannot be solved by individuals, even small teams, and in some cases not even relatively large teams. Some types of work by their nature simply involve large numbers. There has been a emphasis on this type of work over the past decade (or two), with these enormous efforts hailed from the covers of a few prominent scientific journals and in newspapers. Sometimes I feel in hailing these projects too much emphasis is placed on the sheer size of the effort, rather than the results.
I would love to see the diversity of efforts better recognised, along with the inaccuracy of the ‘lone genius’ stereotype.
I would not want to see a return to isolation or only small teams, but care is needed when talking about these things to not so emphasise the larger teams that researchers properly working as small groups or individuals are not discouraged, put down or sidelined.
It’s also worth remembering that many grant funding agencies openly acknowledge they more readily fund projects that involve collaborations, some even requiring demonstration of collaborations, so these can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Similarly, researchers will privately admit that some collaborations were mostly built around a better chance of winning that much-needed grant rather than a genuine meeting of complementary research teams.
A different but related aspect is that even in large laboratories researchers need “alone time” to quietly read and think. That’s important too, and it’s widely noted that it can be hard to find this alone time with all the other things asked of present-day scientists.
Europe has the great advantage of short distances and excellent public transport. Time commitments aside, researchers there have easy means to meet frequently. It is one reason that the Crick institute was intentionally placed near to transport options: you can literally walk across the road and take a train to the continent. (And being a train, you can keep working on the laptop.) For some of us from more remote countries that sort of ease of engagement is something to envy. I hail from New Zealand – a small country thousands of kilometres from anywhere, and half a world away from the major research centres in Europe.
Funding collaborations is important, particularly across international borders. That’s a large part of where Farrar’s concern steps in. Britain breaking away will also likely cut the EU funding to many research collaborations, with damage on both side of channel. It’s hardly surprising researchers there are concerned.
These are all challenges to making science work well. While knocking the lone genius stereotype to touch, and extolling (large) collaborations, let’s also keep an ear open for the smaller teams and solo operators, too.
Before closing with some lighter points, I’d like to remind readers that I am not opposing Farrar’s views; I am looking a collection of issues that his piece reminded me of.
On an even more tangential note, I admire many of the initiatives of the Wellcome Trust, including that it’s support for re-establishing research careers after a break—of any kind, not just maternity leave—and it’s support of (medical) science history, and science communication.
The Wellcome name is seen on some research buildings in New Zealand, but I believe we lost direct access to their funding many years ago (I can no longer recall enough to relate the story).
In any event one interesting tidbit is that part of the roots the Wellcome Trust, one of the biggest biomedical funding charities in the world, and GlaxoSmithKline, a pharmaceutical giant, lie in New Zealand.
Glaxo, which was part of Wellcome when it also had pharmaceutical development within it, was founded in New Zealand. Copying from Wikipedia (citations removed for clarity):
Joseph Nathan and Co. was founded in 1873 as a general trading company in Wellington, New Zealand, by a Londoner, Joseph Edward Nathan. In 1904 it began producing a dried-milk baby food from excess milk produced on the family farms outside Bunnythorpe. The resulting product was first known as Defiance, then as Glaxo (from lacto), under the slogan “Glaxo builds bonny babies.” The Glaxo Laboratories sign is still visible (right) on what is now a car repair shop on the main street of Bunnythorpe. The company’s first pharmaceutical product, released in 1924, was vitamin D.
Glaxo Laboratories was registered as a subsidiary company in London in 1935. Glaxo bought out its parent, Joseph Nathan in 1947 […]
The Wellcome side of the story started independently later merging with Glaxo to form GlaxoWellcome. Later still the pharmaceutical elements were dropped (presumably to remove any conflicts of interests, perceived or actual).
GSK (GlaxoSmithKline) has a little more on their website, and there is a book for those interested who are able to track down a copy – The History of Glaxo in New Zealand, Second Edition by Julia Millen. ISBN: 0473043017.
Other articles from Code for life
- Excellent reading from the Wellcome Book Prize long-list
- Codebreakers – Wellcome traces the origins of modern genetics
- Doggie ERVs
- What is your relationship with your research notebook?
- Coiling bacteria DNA
- Too often those touting unorthodox [read: wrong-headed] views try say that the view is of an exception, but if we were to tot up all these exceptions that are remarkable common… The real exceptions to this rule are exceptionally rare.
Public domain, sourced from Wikipedia. Portrait of John Harrison (1693-1776). (According to Wikpedia: “P.L. Tassaert’s half-tone print of Thomas King’s original 1767 portrait of John Harrison, located at the Science and Society Picture Library, London.”)
Harrison is the subject of Dava Sobel’s popular science book, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time.
John Harrison (3 April [O.S. 24 March] 1693 – 24 March 1776) was a self-educated English carpenter and clockmaker who invented a marine chronometer, a long-sought-after device for solving the problem of calculating longitude while at sea. His solution revolutionized navigation and greatly increased the safety of long-distance sea travel. The problem he solved was considered so important following the Scilly naval disaster of 1707 that the British Parliament offered financial rewards of up to £20,000 (equivalent to £2.84 million today) under the 1714 Longitude Act. Harrison came 39th in the BBC‘s 2002 public poll of the 100 Greatest Britons.