The Blog

The Science of Collaboration

I believe it's fair to say that nobody begrudges Professor Peter Higgs the Nobel Prize in Physics - which he was awarded jointly with François Englert - for the discovery of the Higgs boson, the "God Particle".

I believe it's fair to say that nobody begrudges Professor Peter Higgs the Nobel Prize in Physics - which he was awarded jointly with François Englert - for the discovery of the Higgs boson, the "God Particle". He is a captivating sort of fellow that exudes modesty as well as genius, and who seemed more interested in relating what he had for lunch on the day of the announcement (soup and sea trout washed down with a very nice pint of beer, as it turns out) than in the prize itself. In fact, he says he only became aware of having won the prize when a passing motorist stopped her car to congratulate him.

Yet as much as Higgs and Englert are undoubtedly deserving winners for having independently theorized the existence of the Higgs field and the Higgs boson in 1964, others who played a crucial part in developing this amazing discovery were notable in their absence.

Theoretical physicist Sean Carroll wrote in a recent article for the NY Times that Gerald Guralnik, Richard Hagen and Tom Kibble had perhaps the most complete picture of the Higgs mechanism, but their paper was published a few months afterwards. Others such as Philip Anderson also made substantial contributions to the theory. Then there is the small matter that the theory could not have been proven had it not been for the over 3000 gifted scientists who worked in the Large Hadron Collider.

However, while the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to an organization (the OPCW - Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) due to tradition the physics prize could not be given to more than 3 individuals, and not to collaborative projects. The same tradition that dictates that Robert Brout - who worked with Englert but died in 2011, just over a year before the discovery of the Higgs Boson in CERN - will miss out on this historical recognition as the prize is never awarded posthumously.

It is a fact though, that collaboration has always been integral to the way researchers work, not only writing papers together or working in teams, but exchanging ideas in conferences or even in impromptu cafeteria chats. Creativity and discovery thrive in environments where you have people to bounce off ideas with, and the persisting romantic mythology surrounding lone genius and "Eureka Moments" seems out of sync with the way the scientific community actually functions.

This is even more true in an age dominated by social media, mobile technology and web connectivity; the company I work for, Mendeley, is a research-based social network over 2.5 million users, mostly academics. One of the key features of the platform is the ability to create groups around research interests, where people from across the world can exchange ideas and collaborate on projects, and there are currently over 250,000 such groups on Mendeley. We recently mapped out what the activity in these groups looked like, and the results showed how cross-border global collaboration in the scientific community really is the norm.

The explosive popularity of the Citizen Science movement also means that increasingly we will see amazing scientific achievements come to fruition which owe a large debt to thousands of ordinary people outside the academic community. In fact, there are already moves towards acknowledging this type of involvement in official scientific channels; a Facebook game called Fraxinus is helping to process data crucial to finding a solution to Ash dieback disease, and the players' contribution will be recognised in the resulting published research.

While individual recognition certainly has its place, there is a case to be made for awards also rewarding collective and collaborative efforts. Perhaps scientific prizes could take the lead from the film industry. It's hard to imagine a system more obsessed with individual personality and charisma, yet filmmaking also involves a myriad of talent coming together in complex and lengthy endeavours. Their top awards such as the Oscars manage to reflect this, recognising individual star performances (best actor, best director) as well as departments (best photography) and overall projects (best film).

Science can also have its stars, and it's actually important for young would-be researchers to have people they can directly look up to. Mark Zuckerberg made this point when explaining why he had helped fund the $3 Million Breakthrough Prize which is awarded annually to individual scientists in Physics and Life Sciences:

"our society needs more heroes who are scientists and researchers and engineers. The things that we talk about in the media and the things the market rewards has a big influence on what the next generation of people growing up will choose to do."

Yet one goal does not necessarily exclude the other, and it would be good to see the most recognised and prestigious prizes taking account of how collective efforts are just as crucial to scientific discovery as individual brilliance.

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