Structured efforts to build collaboration-encouraging centers cannot overcome fundamental problems in scientific communication.
These centers should focus on new scientist-to-scientist communication techniques before designing formal programs, says David Rubenson.
Multi-disciplinary, trans-disciplinary, translational, team science. These are the buzzwords for a consensus that transformative science requires collaboration among diverse disciplines. With scientists locked into narrow sub-disciplines, universities are dedicating enormous resources for top-down multi-disciplinary “programs,” “centers,” and “institutes” that attract diverse researchers, with the aim of encouraging more multidisciplinary collaboration.
The investment is misdirected. Formal organizational structures can only supplement, not replace, an essential bottom-up, scientist-to-scientist communication culture; a culture being diminished by bureaucracy, quantitative metrics, and a sea of PowerPoint slides. Addressing these issues, not program building, is the key to productive collaborations.
Organized centers aren’t new. The nearly 50 year-old National Cancer Institute Centers Program seeks to generate collaborations among basic, clinical, translational, and population researchers. The UCLA Brain Research Institute is another early initiative that looks to join neuroscientists from more than 20 academic departments. But as interest in collaborative multi-disciplinary science has grown, so too has the number of centers. My institution, Stanford University, now lists almost 75 “centers” related to science, medicine, and engineering. Turn to any university website for a similar story.
The activities are not always consistent with the goal. Most multi-disciplinary centers have been casually (thoughtlessly?) placed atop preexisting organizational structures based on single-discipline academic departments. This creates administrative confusion and dramatically increases the bureaucratic burden for everyone.
And how effective are the centers in bringing scientists together? Recently I attended a one-day multi-disciplinary symposium organized by a new center. The day had a logical top-down design, but produced little scientific dialogue. There were 15 talks, each scheduled for 20 or 30 minutes. None of the speakers tailored their “canned” talk for the multi-disciplinary scientific audience, and each battled the clock with increasingly rapid-fire slide flipping, racing to describe every bit of research from their laboratory. Virtually every slide was complex, with microscopic fonts and obscure abbreviations. Each could have been the subject of extended discussion. The dazed audience saw more than 500 slides that day, and probably understood very few of them.
Academic leaders have mistakenly decided that planning and organizational structure is the path to collaboration. There is a more fundamental communication problem rooted in a culture that stresses metrics over true advances, and too frequently places scientists in passive listening modes. There are many symptoms: opaque publications, growing retraction rates, CV padding, symposia attendees spending their time on email, endless organizational meetings, and the dominance of metrics like lab size, funding levels, and publication counts. But the nastiest open wound, and best place to first attack the problem, is the slide presentation.
PowerPoint presentations have become the most ubiquitous and misused form of scientific communication. They are not appropriate for every communication goal, and most presenters do not think through their strengths and limitations. Researchers spend countless hours passively listening to poorly crafted presentations, and gleaning only superficial understanding. Speakers gloss over inconsistencies, knowing the dazed audience is unlikely to notice.
Active formats are needed. Why not force speakers to summarize their science with five slides, or a short written handout, leaving time to challenge the audience with a related scientific problem that stimulates discussion? Why not hand out data tables and ask scientists to offer competing interpretations? Why not hold round-table discussions where a moderator allows visuals only when directly relevant to the conversation? Great science will happen when researchers are placed in challenging and stimulating environments. Carefully crafted slide presentations can be part of the mix, but not the main ingredient.
Solve the scientific communication problem and multi-disciplinary collaborations will happen spontaneously. Academic leaders can then focus on selected activities that supplement a vibrant culture of scientific communication. Organized centers can be the frosting, not the cake.
Many scientists are frustrated by the time wasted in unproductive presentations, the focus on quantitative metrics, the futility of conferences, and endless planning meetings associated with formal centers. But habits are too deeply ingrained for spontaneous change. Here’s where centers with the appropriate leadership and enduring presence can take the initiative. They should shift focus from program building to innovative scientific communications.
David Rubenson is about to retire from the Stanford University Cancer Institute where he serves as Associate Director for Administration and Planning. He maintains a website and blog related to scientific communications.