Against academic hermits

In writing about the misconceptions of collaboration, I hadn’t expected that anyone would interpret my article as arguing against any kind of grouping of researchers, but it’s come to my attention that at least one reader has interpreted it that way, and a re-reading of my post tells me that’s a fair enough interpretation of what was written. I’m happy to take the blame for this, as my writing can be kind of loose at times. On the other hand, I’ve received some e-mails that indicate some of my other readers knew exactly what I was trying to get at, as they’d experienced some of the things I was talking about. Nevertheless, I’d like to clarify that I’m all for research teams! I hadn’t considered that research teams of the sort one might find within a single research organisation can be classified as a collaborative arrangement. To me, such a grouping is something more than a collaboration. Rather naively, I had not even thought about the possibility that academics can still get away with working in complete isolation, so I was somewhat stupidly relying on the reader to make some assumptions about what was written. When I spoke of loosely coupled interactions, I meant between two or more groups of academics at different institutions rather than between individual academics. When I said 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 I was talking about interactions between multiple teams rather than intra-team dynamics. What I’m arguing against are top-down directions that mandate collaboration between research teams from different organisations with little or no forethought. There’s pressure to form these kinds of collaborations because they attract funding either directly, or indirectly whereby they are used as a kind of metric that can be counted to attract future funding.

It has also occurred to me that if the article is read in a certain way, it could be seen as demeaning Australian CRCs. While I do believe it is getting harder for researchers who work in CRCs (and other government funded institutions) to focus on fundamental research, I certainly am not asking for the end of CRCs! Good grief! A certain CRC with which I have had the privilege to be associated will probably always be one of the best, coolest, most awesome places I will ever have worked at, and that’s precisely because of the people who worked there and the creative buzz one felt when interacting with those great people.

I think Kerry actually pin-pointed exactly the point I was trying to make:

Yes, but would not a formal collaboration of the correct range of skills in the one lab with a common goal have found it sooner?

The key point is “the one lab”. This is exactly right. But again, as soon as a cohesive unit is formed, to me it ceases to be what I think of as collaboration, and I think this is where Kerry and I were getting our wires crossed. When a research team is formed within a lab, the unit is no longer the researcher: it’s the research team. When collaboration does happen in this context, it is not between individual researchers but between entire research teams. And the fact that the researchers have gathered in the one lab indicates that they’ve all been drawn there of their own accord. It’s a bottom-up process, not a command-and-control one. Furthermore, collaboration between one research team and another one will happen of its own accord where the majority of individuals involved see the benefit. There’s no need for other (politically motivated) incentives.

For what it’s worth, I personally can’t even imagine being some kind of academic hermit working in isolation. I need to be part of a team so I can feed off the vibes and ideas of my co-workers. Hell, I’ve never even written a paper on my own (barring my thesis)! I hope that takes care of any misunderstandings. But knowing my luck, I’ve just dug a deeper hole! Perhaps you’ll be better off reading Kerry’s concise clarification.