Collaborations: Challenging, but Key
Like any relationship, collaborations take energy, but nothing is better for your research.
Collaborations are becoming increasingly important in biology because of the need to apply multiple technologies to tackle the most complex current problems. The U.S. National Institutes of Health recognizes this need, and has created the “multi-investigator” granting mechanism to facilitate this process. I have reviewed a number of proposals that utilize the multi-investigator mechanism and have generally found them to be superior to individual investigator grants. Setting up a good collaboration, however, can be extremely difficult.
First, it is probably necessary to say what a collaboration is not. I do not consider providing reagents or advice to your fellow scientist a collaboration. That is part of normal scientific citizenship. Every scientist should be willing to accommodate reasonable requests for assistance. No, a collaboration is when you work with another scientist with complementary expertise to solve a common problem.
Sharing the same scientific goal is essential for a collaboration, but it is also what makes collaborations so difficult to establish. Scientists with the same research goals tend to have the same expertise and are usually your competitors. Scientists with different expertise, unfortunately, are likely to be interested in totally different problems that require that expertise. The lack of overlapping interest in scientists with divergent expertise is a huge problem for creating productive collaborations.
I learned about the difficulty in starting a collaboration when I began searching for one early in my career. I was building mathematical models of receptor dynamics, but I was trained in biochemistry and cell biology, not mathematics. I was fortunate to have taken several advanced calculus courses in college, but this was only sufficient for some of my simplest mathematical models. As the models became more complicated, I started to struggle. Around this time, I met a mathematician while visiting Los Alamos, who was also interested in receptor dynamics. I thought that a collaboration with him would help us both, and he seemed to feel the same way.
Unfortunately, this collaboration did not get very far because we wanted to pursue quite different problems. He was interested in the mathematical representation of receptor interactions and I was interested in the consequence of those interactions. My mathematical needs were too simple for him and his experimental needs were too tedious for me. We both became frustrated with the situation.
Fortunately, he knew a chemical engineer from the University of Pennsylvania, Doug Lauffenburger, who was an outstanding mathematician and also shared my interest (coincidently) in the regulatory dynamics of receptors. He introduced us and we immediately hit it off. Doug and I did indeed share an interest in the same problems and we had complementary skill sets. The result was a collaboration that has lasted over 20 years and has resulted in over 30 joint papers.
I have had 3 other important collaborations during my career, and each has greatly expanded the breadth and depth of my research program. This is not to say that there were not problems associated with these collaborations. Receiving appropriate credit is always an issue and your partner can sometime spring unpleasant surprises on you, such as bringing in additional people who dilute the credit even more. There is also the well-documented bias against collaborations by academic tenure and promotion committees.
Although my collaborations have been very worthwhile, I still find them hard to establish and maintain. However, I know other scientists who excel at generating numerous and productive collaborations. These scientists also tend to be extremely creative and productive investigators who invariably ask important, long-term questions. It seems that the longer the timeline that you set to a problem, the more general it becomes, providing more opportunities to include the research interests of other investigators.
So how do you start a good collaboration? First, you must identify what you can offer, then you identify someone who could benefit. I have found most of my collaborators at small scientific meetings, where it is easiest to identify a scientist’s true interest and establish the trust that collaborations require. You must also be willing to share credit for your ideas. Like any relationship, collaborations take time and energy. Still, there is nothing that can accelerate your research faster or expand your intellectual horizons more. And it can lead to lifelong friendships.
Steven Wiley is a Pacific Northwest National Laboratory Fellow and director of PNNL’s Biomolecular Systems Initiative.