This post is also available in Dutch.
If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.*
For centuries, the individual, independent scientist – the genius – has been performing research on his own. However, nowadays, only focusing on this way of doing research is insufficient for resolving many questions of present-day science. Instead, we also need larger, systematic studies executed by teams of experts that go beyond collaborations between independent researchers. Here I will explain why we need this rebalancing towards ‘team science’ to achieve better results and better working conditions for the people involved.
Team science, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, Flickr
Growing fragmentation – victim of its own success
Science has made our planet a much better place to live. Consequently, societies are investing in academic research: While there were a few hundred thousand scientists in the 1950ies, estimates now reach ten million. However, the number of people we can interact with is limited and thus, scientists today only have useful exchanges with an ever smaller fraction of their scientific community.
This is also relevant for scientific knowledge; while Newton could integrate all the physics knowledge of his time, scientists today are specialized in ever-smaller fragments of existing knowledge. Adding to this, because of continuous technological advancement, scientists use new, more and more complex methods, so they need to specialize on a single or a small set of methods.
Rising complexity – low hanging fruits are harvested
Given scientific progress, one can readily assume that there is development from rather easy questions that have been resolved already to more difficult, complex ones. Because of this rising complexity, we recently noticed slowed advancement: Scientific results appear to have less real-world impact and given their complexity, they are often harder to replicate.
Scientists are like artists
Scientific careers are focused on independence and individuality. In their PhD, researchers are trained to become independent and thereafter as a scientist, individual performance is assessed in a cut-throat competition for funding and permanent positions. This puts substantial personal burden on scientists not seen in many other jobs for knowledge workers.
Moreover, researchers sign their publications, talk about their findings and receive prizes similarly to poets. Of course, many researchers collaborate, but their focus on individual gain often puts a centrifugal force upon such collaborative endeavors. This focus on artist-like individuality is ill-suited for answering complex scientific questions that require diverse expertise and methodology.
How to keep science successful
Unprecedented innovation, for instance in digital communication, was achieved without highlighting individual contributions. Instead, large research and development teams follow systematically specific aims. There are also good examples in science: Hundreds or even thousands of scientists discovered gravitational waves or the Higgs boson together.
Also in biomedical research, the first team science projects are underway. The Allen Brain Institute is one rigorous effort where large teams of scientists work towards defined aims that are followed systematically by standardized procedures. Although smaller, the nascent Healthy Brain Cohort, currently developed on Radboud Campus, has a similar team science approach.
Food for thought
Despite these promising examples, scientists need to do more and find further ways to better structure academic research, so that it stays successful and provides better working conditions for academics. I am happy to receive feedback and discuss these thoughts.
Guillén Fernández became a principal investigator of the Donders Institute in 2002, where he is heading the Memory and Emotion research group. Since 2010, he is one of the Donders directors. Before coming to Nijmegen, he obtained his medical degree, doctorate, and habilitation at Bonn University. He received full training in clinical neurology and cognitive neurosciences in Bonn, Magdeburg, and Stanford. Guillén Fernández is a fellow of the Academia Europaea and the Memory Disorder Research Society. He received the Richard-Jung Award, the Hermesdorf Prize, the Vici Award of the Dutch Research Council, and an Advanced Investigator Grant from the European Research Council.
* African proverb
Koch C and Jones A. Big Science, Team Science, and Open Science for Neuroscience. Neuron 2016; 92: 612-616
Utzerath C and Fernández G. Shaping Science for Increasing Interdependence and Specialization. Trends in Neuroscience 2017; 40: 121-124
Radboudumc Grand Round by Guillén Fernández: “Team Science – Reforming the organization of biomedical research”
Written by Guillén Fernández. Edited by Harriette Koop and Marisha Manahova.