THE BLOG

A No-brainer for Unlocking Science

03/03/2014 16:05 GMT | Updated 30/04/2014 10:59 BST

It's no secret that better collaboration between scientists can lead to new insights and faster discoveries, and the world's richest countries are now using this idea globally to push for a dementia cure.

In December last year, Health Ministers from all G8 countries met in London to discuss the creation of a coordinated strategy for tackling dementia on a global scale. That reflected the disease's status as a Public Health Priority as highlighted in the World Health Organisation's 2012 report, which estimated 35.6 million people worldwide are currently living with dementia. This number is expected to more than triple by 2050

The G8 have now set themselves the goal to identify a cure or modifying therapy for dementia by 2025. To achieve this extremely ambitious goal, ministers have pledged that their countries will "Work together, share information about the research we fund, and identify strategic priority areas, including sharing initiatives for big data, for collaboration and cooperation." Collaboration was very much the key word in the summit, and the plan is to develop a coordinated international research action plan that also includes academia-industry partnerships.

"We recognise the need to strengthen efforts to stimulate and harness innovation," stated the report that followed the health ministers' meeting. The key for doing that, it seems is to facilitate greater communication and collaboration amongst scientists that are seeking better therapies and treatments for dementia around the world. The UK is appointing a global Dementia Innovation Envoy, whose remit is to draw together all the existing expertise and research, coordinating international efforts to attract new sources of finance. "Building upon the significant research collaborations that exist between our countries and our multilateral partners will strengthen our efforts and allow us to better meet the challenges that dementia presents society," the report concludes.

Technology is likely to be the most important catalyst to this greater collaboration amongst scientists, academics and industry. This is something I already see happening in the company where I work, Mendeley, which focuses on building those crucial connections within the academic and scientific communities, and facilitating the type of global collaborative efforts that the ministers are aiming for.

There are many ways in which technology can help to facilitate scientific discovery, and you don't need to look far to find some remarkable examples of how this is happening, including in the field of Mental Health. Citizen Scientists were recently called upon to participate in a crowdsourcing experiment called #Hooked. It looked into what constitutes memorable and "catchy music", and it is hoped the results will yield data that could help future research into Alzheimer's disease. There has also been a record-breaking crowdfunding campaign that is helping to raise awareness and funds for Parkinson's disease through Indiegogo, achieving over five times its initial $100,000 goal so far.

Researchers who use collaborative platforms like Mendeley say how central they have become to their workflow, but the most exciting future prospects lie in bringing people and their research together in ever faster, more intuitive, and relevant ways. As machine learning and recommender systems technologies advance, scientists will be presented with important information and connections that complements their work and anticipates their needs, and which they might not otherwise have come across.

Instead of just reading a paper and then citing it in your own study, for example, researchers could have enriched articles that are dynamically linked to tools, applications, audio slides, and an endless variety of data. This would not only enhance their workflow, but has the potential to increase reproducibility, a crucial element of scientific research that allows researchers to re-run and verify experiments much more reliably.

Programs such as Article of the Future, which is run by Mendeley's parent company Elsevier, are already finding ways of doing this, meaning we could have a paper that is dynamically linked to its data so that it is possible to run variations of an experiment in real time, and add your results and findings to it. IJsbrand Jan Aalbersberg, who heads the project, says that this enhanced reproducibility in the ability to re-run and execute experiments and to "make an article alive" is an important factor in accelerating and advancing scientific discovery.

It's incredibly exciting to think about the possibilities still out there for bringing people, and their research together. Working in a lab can sometimes be isolating, and although researchers will make every effort to keep up-to-date with current published studies in their area, this is not always straightforward and also allows little room for serendipitous discovery. Social Filtering could help provide recommendations of other researchers that are working in similar or parallel-yet-related areas, plus point towards interesting group discussions, papers, and multimedia resources in a personalized feed. Some of this has already started happening in platforms like Mendeley, but as technologies improve, we will see the process become much more contextualised and attuned to the individual user and their needs.

With medical advances extending life expectancy, we see people living longer, and often they will develop dementia later in life, at an age they might not have reached otherwise. My grandfather, for example, has just been diagnosed at the age of 84. The prospect of him losing his faculties and independence is incredibly devastating, and most families have similar experiences affecting them or someone they know. Science has certainly bought us more time, but time without quality of life seems like a poor bargain. This initiative, if successful, has the potential to make an enormous difference not only to the millions who are directly affected, but to all who love them and share in their memories. Surely that is worth setting all differences aside and working together for.