Soapbox Science

Research 2.0.2: How research is conducted

Elizabeth Iorns headshot (portrait)

Elizabeth Iorns is a breast cancer scientist and the Co-Founder & CEO of Science Exchange, an online marketplace for science experiments. 

This week Elizabeth is hosting a three part series all about the research cycle. Do share your thoughts in the comment thread.

In the first post of this series, I described the changes that are coming for the way scientific research is funded in the digital age.  In the second part, I’ll explore the ways in which the process of research itself is also destined to undergo dramatic changes.

Traditionally, research was conducted by a single scientist or a small team of scientists within a single laboratory. The scientist(s) would conduct the majority of required experiments themselves, even if they did not initially have the necessary expertise or equipment. If they could not conduct an experiment themselves, they would attempt to find a collaborator in another lab to help them by using a barter system. This barter system essentially involves one scientist asking for a favor from another scientist, with the potential upside being co-authorship on any publications that are produced by the work. This type of collaborative arrangement depends heavily on personal networks developed by scientists.

The evolution of scientific collaboration

As research has become increasingly specialized and complex, this DIY/barter system has ceased to function effectively. It is no longer possible for a single scientist to master all the techniques or purchase all the equipment required to conduct their experiments, and they cannot maintain sufficient personal networks to enable effective bartering for all of the complex experiments required. Frequently, even an entire university cannot provide all the expertise necessary for a research project. As evidence of this, over 60% of papers are now co-authored by investigators from multiple institutions (Source: OECD).

The amount of collaboration required in research will continue to increase, driven by many factors including:

  1. The need for ever more complex and large scale instrumentation to delve deeper into biological and physical processes
  2. The maturation of scientific disciplines requiring more and more knowledge in order to make significant advances, a demand which can often only be met by pooling knowledge with others
  3. An increasing desire to obtain cross-fertilization across disciplines

So with large teams of scientists, often based at remote institutions, increasingly needing to work together to solve complex problems, there will be a demand for new tools to help facilitate collaboration. Specifically, there will be an increasing need for tools that allow researchers to easily find and access other scientists with the expertise required to advance their research projects. In my view, to operate most efficiently these tools also need new methods to reward researchers for participating in these collaborations.

The digital marketplace model provides a mechanism for researchers to list their expertise so that other researchers can easily find them and request collaborations. Several sites that allow for scientific networking exist including Mendeley, ResearchGate, and BiomedExperts, but these are not specifically designed to facilitate formal transactions between scientists.  ScienceExchange serves less of a social networking and discussion function, and instead offers a transparent fee-for-service marketplace, delineating a clear incentive for experts to participate in collaborations that they may not have been interested in previously.

The emergence of virtual research institutes

The availability of scientific expertise on a fee-for-service basis has enabled research to be conducted by organizations which would have previously had to invest in wet lab space and the associated research personnel. This ‘virtual’ method of conducting research is highly efficient and was first embraced by the biotech sector (Source: Fierce Biotech), where biotech startups have started outsourcing all wet lab research work rather than build in-house capabilities. This is highly cost effective as it allows these companies to avoid the purchase of expensive equipment and the hiring/training of staff for highly specialized one off techniques.

This model is also increasingly being used by pharmaceutical companies, traditionally the powerhouses of research. Many big pharma companies have recently cut in-house research staff and started relying on more efficient mechanisms of accessing expertise via outsourcing. [An example is AstraZeneca which outsourced its entire clinical pharmacology research group to Quintiles.]

A big growth area for this type of virtual research is patient groups. [These groups include disease specific foundations like The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.] Non-profits already fund $14.5 billion in research each year, but historically they have just given money to researchers in the form of grants as they don’t have the ability to conduct research themselves. However, with access to a global network of research service providers on Science Exchange these patient groups can develop an entire research program and have it conducted virtually. One example of a patient group already doing this is the Chordoma Foundation.

A huge advantage of a marketplace model in the context of this virtual approach to research is transparency of cost. There are currently staggering inefficiencies in the cost of experimental services largely driven by an opaque market with no cost transparency. A marketplace enables access to the most efficient provider of experimental expertise so should be adopted by biotechs and patient groups looking to conduct research virtually.

An increased focus on research quality

One result of the rise in research requiring the combination of multiple specialized areas of expertise on ever shortening time-scales is, unfortunately, a concomitant decrease in the reproducibility of the published results (New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Nature.).  It is now apparent that independent validation of key experimental findings is an essential step that will be placed in the research process. Savvy research funding agencies (e.g. the Michael J. Fox Foundation) are already starting to require more accountability from the researchers they fund and are increasingly setting aside a proportion of budgets for validation studies. We are likely to see this approach adopted by other forward-thinking funding agencies. In response, Science Exchange has recently launched a validation service as part of the Reproducibility Initiative – to enable research findings to be independently validated via our network of fee-for-service experts.

Although serendipity in human interactions across many domains can be wonderful and fruitful, there is a downside to relying exclusively on chance bringing the right scientists together at the right time.  By formalizing and democratizing access to scientific collaboration, the internet age will be a powerful force in improving the speed and quality of scientific research.  As I will discuss in my next post, this force is also changing the dissemination of research results.

Part 1: Research 2.0.1: The future of research funding

Part 2: Research 2.0.2: How research is conducted 

Part 3: The future of research communication


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