Misconceptions of research collaboration

NOTE: A clarification of this article has been posted here.

In the latest edition of The Australian’s Higher Education Supplement, Julian Cribb (Adjunct Professor of Science Communication, UTS) voices his dissatisfaction with current scientific research policy in this country (The Australian, HES, page 23, 20/12/2006) by drawing on the findings of a Productivity Commission report. He has written what hundreds, if not thousands, of researchers must surely be thinking: Australian science policy is a failure. Rather than simply reiterate the arguments of Professor Cribb and the Productivity Commission, in this article I wish to highlight what I believe to be an unjustified emphasis on research collaboration, particularly in the formative stages of a research project.History shows, emphatically, that the most important scientific discoveries and theories and the greatest inventions have come about, not through intense collaboration between organisations, but rather as a result of the ingenuity of one or two (often brilliant) minds. It is in the application of these discoveries, theories and inventions that collaboration is of most benefit, not in the forming of the ideas in the first place. History is littered with hundreds of examples where this is the case, and very few in which close collaboration between teams of researchers yielded a scientific breakthrough. Certainly, loosely coupled forms of cooperation are a mainstay of scientific advancement; afterall, isn’t academic communication via peer-review and publishing a form of cooperation whereby ideas are circulated throughout particular research communities? But this kind of cooperation is clearly different from the kinds of collaboration that researchers in Australia and other parts of the world are being forced to engage in by (government) funding bodies. Where successful research collaboration does occur, it happens in a bottom-up fashion whereby the benefits of collaboration are immediately obvious to the individual researchers involved.

The movement of the Earth around the Sun, the model of the structure of an atom, evolution, DNA and relativity – these are all theories or discoveries which have had a profound effect on the way we see the world we live in. None of them were the result of collaboration between research organisations, and they certainly were not conceived of a collaboration between researchers and industry. Even if we consider a less fundamental breakthrough of the modern day, such as Google’s PageRankTM algorithm which signalled a substantial leap forward in terms of how the World Wide Web is searched, we can see that the algorithm was a result of a convergence of the ideas of two university students who happened to meet more or less by chance.

Why, then, do so many Australian government funded research organisations emphasize the need for research collaboration, when all the evidence shows that few significant scientific breakthroughs have come through such collaboration? Granted, there needs to be some kind of collaboration between research institutions and industry when it comes to exploiting the results of research, but this is a completely different thing, and it comes at a later stage in the development of a research idea. In the technology sector, for instance, the mean time between the conception of a new technology and the formation of a billion dollar industry is twenty years [1]. Take the computer mouse, conceived by Douglas Engelbart in 1963 and refined by researchers at the fabled Xerox PARC lab through the 1970s. Although the first commercial computer mice were shipped with Xerox workstations from 1981, it wasn’t until the Apple Macintosh came onto the scene in 1984 that the point-and-click paradigm really took off. Similar experiences were had by other computer and communications technologies, from relational databases to local area networks [2]. I include this information only to show that research-industry collaboration might be important for commercialisation of research, but it has not been shown that this sort of collaboration is important for coming up with good ideas in the first place. In order to maintain consistency with Professor Cribb’s article and the findings of the Productivity Commission, I need to add that the current trend towards requiring researchers to seek out commercial support for their research in order to keep their projects afloat for longer than the typical three year funding term is counter-productive. It means that either the research being conducted in our government funded research organisations is not as cutting edge as it should be (and that, in effect, tax payers are subsidising incremental industry research), or that the government is flushing tax payers’ money down the toilet because researchers can’t see their cutting edge research through to a mature state. The government must account for and value the massive positive externalities generated by fundamental research, and, if anything, the onus ought to be on the Australian industry sector to seek out research that they can exploit commercially. Afterall, it seems that the technology underlying the billion dollar industry of ten years from now was conceived ten years ago. In other words, the next commercial success stemming from fundamental research is already here; industry just needs to find it.

As alluded to earlier, loosely coupled interaction, as it naturally exists in academia, is probably a much better model for research cooperation. Schemes that tie funding to certain levels of collaboration do a disservice to research in this country. Such funding arrangements do nothing but compel researchers to enter into meaningless, time- and money-wasting relationships, and distract them from their core task of doing good research. Where it is beneficial to do so, researchers will enter into collaborative arrangements of their own accord (unless they are masochistic, which is a possibility that we can disregard in most cases), without the need for funding incentives that only serve to distract researchers from the main game.