A conversation for science: why talking makes research better

What are the best conditions for doing research? What can university leadership do to create those circumstances?

One of the most fundamental challenges for university presidents, deans, department chairs, and research group leaders is to make the best environment for research. Everything else a university does builds on success in doing science.

We can do nothing, though, unless we have an idea of how good research happens. Because we’re scientists, we should not base our leadership activities on anecdotes or our own experiences; we should build on research — research on research. How can we find out what the best conditions for research might be? What does the evidence tell us?

The traditional method for doing research on research, is to interview people who have been successful researchers. The risk here is that memories are unstable — details are lost, embellishments appear.

Several years ago, Dr. Kevin Dunbar, then at McGill University in Montreal, developed a different approach to studying this issue.

Dunbar’s idea was to watch researchers doing research. He got permission to film daily life at four important biology labs, and to record the discussions taking place in those labs. Think of this as a kind of Big Brother for science, as recently reported in Steven Johnson’s Where good ideas come from: the natural history of innovation.

In addition to filming, Dunbar also interviewed scientists regularly, in the midst of their projects, in the midst of their daily work, so he could hear their thoughts about why they were doing what they were doing.

After he did all this filming and recording, Dunbar transcribed and classified the actions and comments of the biologists.  He wanted to see how ideas developed and moved through a laboratory.

He wanted to identify the points at which problems were solved, the points at which new perspectives and ideas emerged, and the points at which new connections were made between projects. In short, he wanted to identify the points at which the researchers had breakthroughs.

Breakthroughs in biology don’t happen when a scientist is looking into a microscope. They happen after that, when a scientist is talking with another scientist.

They happen when scientists ask each other questions. What do you mean? How could you test that idea? What are the implications of your observations?

Ground zero of innovation, Johnson writes, is not the microscope; it’s the conference table.

Researchers who work alone struggle to make progress. It’s hard to point to major breakthroughs in science produced by one person working in isolation. New knowledge emerges through discourse.

If this is what the evidence tells us, how should people in leadership positions respond?

It’s important to build research groups and not have single researchers working in complete isolation. It’s important to prioritize travel funds for researchers to meet their colleagues and present their results. It’s important to create opportunities to host events at which scientists present their work to each other and perhaps even to other kinds of “consumers” of research results — teachers, policy makers and entrepreneurs.

Progress in science is the result of conversations. Who are you speaking to about your work? What are you doing to give your researchers the chance to talk?

About Curt Rice

My interest in leadership development at universities affects most of what I do, whether it’s working on gender balance issues, developing policies about Open Access, promoting research-based education or just about anything else. I'm a professor at the University of Tromsø, where I've spent the last decade serving first as the head of a Center of Excellence (2002-2008) and then as the Vice President for Research & Development (prorektor for forskning og utvikling) (2009-2013). I'm currently a Fellow at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study.

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