Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Save Our Silos - A case against forced interdisciplinarity

More collaborations! We have to destroy data silos! Walls must be torn down! Barriers removed!!! Now that we have just entered the Trump era, my innate sense of opposition makes it hard to resist the open-field ideology. After all, the orange clown wants the contrary, does he not? If Batman’s nemesis wants to build walls, shall we not invest in Semtex? Still, my experience is that any rhetoric easy to flow is usually flawed. Especially when it is hard to disagree with. Think of Miss Universe sobbing her “peace in the world” usual wish - who would even think of disagreeing? And who would give it a second thought… Unfortunately, Trump does not hold the monopoly for stupid ideas. That would be too easy...

So, is full blown collaboration good for research? Well, given that you are reading this blog and that some of you have, hopefully, read some of my papers, and the other way round, I guess the answer is yes. Collaboration and exchanges are good, not only good, they are essential for good research. That does not need to be proven because it is a condition for survival. Period. Now the remaining question of course is, how much of it? Does every project has to be a collaboration, 50%, 10%? Is there a magic number, does it depend on people, places, time of the day, moon phases, Chinese horoscope year?

In a very successful southern institute that I was recently surveying, and whose three letter name I will keep to myself, five lines of perl chomping over a scopus dump revealed a staggering 80% level of collaboration between programs. Yet some of the researchers were complaining about the management recurrent mantra on “insufficient collaborations, and drastic steps that should be implemented to increase interdisciplinarity and collaboration between programs”. When all the buzzwords pop up in the same sentence, I usually sense red light warnings sweeping through my neurones like measle patterns. I apologize for being so biased against the obvious. It’s part of my job.

The thing with collaborations is that they are easy to explain to politicians, and, let us be clear about it, collaborations lead to harmonization that leads to improved productivity, that leads to increased wealth. Politicians, and statesmen alike, understand this well and it is hard to curb their enthusiasm at the prospect of being re-elected for successful economic reforms. If you are in production mode you want everything to be harmonized, and walls to be destroyed. This is why big companies become even bigger - there is a big corpus of theory behind this and everybody agrees it makes a lot of sense for all the stakeholders even - sometimes - the consumers.

Only kidding… I have to admit that making better drugs, better phones and better everything is, indeed, a prospect I find it hard to frown upon. I like engineers to do good stuff. Over the years, managers have used all their linguistic skills to have us calling this innovation. A new phone is innovation, a new drug is innovation, a new car color is innovation. You name it.. No! Not even! you don’t have time to name it and it’s already innovation. Through an ingenious semantic shift these smart innovation leaders (i.e. those who name innovation faster than the rest) have even lead us to believe in corporate research, the (in)famous r&d. Does it work? Does r&d really create novelty, and if it does, is it the result of increased collaboration and communication?

Well, let's take the simple analogy of cinema. On this page ( are listed the top grossing movies across the whole 20th century. I have picked up two decades, the 60s and ours:

We could argue a long time about the fact that the old flix were more creative, etc, etc and any one could handwave his or her own way, but there is something that can simply not be denied. The 2010 decade is entirely dominated by sequels: Star Wars 8 (!) Iron Man 3, Toy Story 3, Furious 7, etc, etc. Overall, out of the 10 most successful movies of the current decade, all are sequels, 9 of which with an index higher than 2...  Just have a look at 60s for a comparison. Not one frame of repackaged stuff! All these movies were brand new bold ideas. Mary Poppins, my fair lady, Dr Zhivagho. Not a single one that most cinephiles would not consider a small jewel in its own category. Very good movies in which most characters have the elegance of dying in the end as both a token of respect for real life, and a gesture of defiance for sequels.

Yes, not only have things become much more expensive, but the level of creativity has dramatically fallen. This sort of things happens when you break all walls, get everybody in the same big swimming pool and start heating things up, you make soup, and not a good one. It seems that breaking walls works much better when it comes to manufacturing goods than to foster diversity. Diversity and uniformisation do not really go together. If you want to convince yourself, just go on a field trip in your favorite tropical spot, put on a snorkel and look! Where are the rainbow fish, Nemo and his friends or this weird seven and half legs octopus munching on an anemone? In the sandy open space, waiting to be chomped? or in the intricate collections of caves, tunnels and chambers carved by coral.. Of course sharks have long argued that these divisions should disappear and give way to a more rational organization of their food supply but ...Where does diversity thrive? In the open or in the fragmented? Then again, where would you set to cultivate your oysters? Here you go. Productivity versus variety.

Of course, politicians could have asked geneticists. They would have told them that in a population, the probability for a new mutation to get fixed is proportional to Ne, the effective population size (

What this means is that the larger your population, the harder it becomes to create stable diversity. If you want diversity to arise and make its way, you need many small independent populations. Surprising but obvious if you think of it a minute. Just take your five favorite small countries and compare their combined diversity - of any kind - with any larger country having their combined population size… Think Europe versus the US…

Of course, said this way, it is hard not to long for US style uniformity, especially when you have a computer to plug... but now let us switch to your google life. You wake up in the morning. You have had this weird idea in the shower about CRISP-R re-engineering of sabertooth kangaroo and your spine is shivering at the translational prospects of this innovative project. You are already putting together your address to the nobel committee, with tongue in the cheek bundling of a few subliminal messages to Trump and Brexit. But wait!!! you google a bit and find that some second rate scientist, from some obscure university, has stolen your brainwave before you even had it! Adding misery to injury, the dude has made a mess of it and published it in the annals of improbable marsupials. Thunder is gone, it’s only mist and steam from the shower you left running... back to reality and well structured work, take off this bow tie.  

Had you not known about it, you may have polished your idea, possibly re-inventing the wheel, possibly finding an alternative solution that would have resulted in new possibilities. At best you would have been eaten alive by your creature, but most likely would have wasted your time, or, with a very very low probability, you would have made an amazing breakthrough and changed the face of kangaroos forever.  

Alas… Now that the law states that the tires of re-invented wheels must be punched every second day of the week, working this way has become impossible. In our efficient world there is no room for redundant ideas. Yes, if brains were species, increased communication would decrease their effective population size. For many things, like wikipedia, this is just great. For others, like the emergence of novelty, it is the neuronal equivalent of the cretaceous extinction, a perfect ecological wipeout.

So what does this have to do with inter-disciplinary collaborations? Let’s put it this way: when you collaborate, you exchange and harmonize ideas, and your community effective size becomes larger. By many measures this is great as it allows bolder projects - like the human genome - and brings in new ideas, like speech recognition HMMs chewing human genomes.

Such cross-fertilizations constitute one of the engines of scientific progress. Yet, at the same time, larger communities make it harder for new ideas to emerge. Journals, reviewers, community, twitter. They all think they understand everything and make sure any attempt of novelty gets squashed in its early days. On average they are quite right… or are they? The thing with novelty is that it is not an average phenomenon, it is a spark that eludes any prediction. And who would care… Unfortunately, novelty turns out to be the other engine of scientific progress. And yes, with two engines going in opposite directions, well you need a strong cable, and you need to make sure each engine keeps pulling. This is why we need  a good healthy tension between globalization and fragmentation. One cannot go around claiming one of these is the solution.

So what shall we do? I think I have the right answer because my answer is not even an answer. In the Trump era, at a time when both the pro and the anti know what is good for everybody, one should be weary of simple solutions. The only thing that I remember from my history classes is that whenever some character with a mustache, a beard or feather on her cap claims he or she knows what will make everybody happier, anything between one and a hundred million people die. With very convincing and charismatic leaders, one could probably go a bit over this figure, and the future looks really bright if you support massive primate extinction… only kidding, this is not a primate thing and there is no reason other species should miss out on the fun...

So what is good for basic research? Difficult to tell. Basic research is a very fragile eco-system. It produces little, in a highly unpredictable way, but when it does, it changes everything. In biology, the two groundbreaking shifts about to re-shape our lives, and probably the genetic makeup of our species, can be traced to very specific, not so collaborative, and hard to fund project. One is the restriction enzymes that opened up the era of biotechnologies and the other one is the CRISP-R mechanism. No matter the amount of story telling later built upon these things, the first one had to do with a scientist so obsessed with restricted growth in bacteria that he ended up studying it with money allocated for a different purpose (read Arber’s most likely not edulcorated own account on this)... The other was the brainchild of a Spanish microbiologist inhabited enough by his trade to escape from the Almeria’s beach every once in while and check for his computer’s output. None of these things were really planned, none of these things were easy to fund, none of them were branded as interdisciplinary, none of them would be funded today. No milestones, no interdisciplinarity, no future. Only ultra self driven scientists.

When these stories are told at conferences, the big cheese usually chuckle, implying with a laugh that these undeniable exceptions can safely be ignored and that originality should give way for the grand plans of these great men. We should resist, quietly and stubbornly, as we should resist any oversold idea. But what kind of resistance? I do not want inter-disciplinarity to go away. In fact, as a scientist, I cannot even imagine my life without the excitement of new adventures in fields unknown to me. I love these escapades because they are complicated to organize. My first interdisciplinary affair was with Lausanne Social Science department, studying life trajectories as if they had been genomic sequences, later on, my group collaborated with Mar Diesrsen teaching mice how to swim
and our Nextflow recent production results from an immersion in the IT world. In fact, looking back, about everything I do put together is made of the unnaturally fitting of intellectual objects. None of these things were ever properly funded - you know, grants with milestones and deliverables.

So what’s wrong? Well it’s very simple: I do it because of the unstoppable urge to follow the few obsessions I have had for a long time as a scientist. I don’t care about the system, I only care about my internal drive. I have no major claim that anything useful will come out of my work, but I know that these are people like me who create novelty. Old style obsessed scientists with absolutely no interest for buzz words. I am not saying that this breed of mammal is the only thing we need - remember it is an eco-system. I am simply claiming that without them there will be no novelty, only engineering. Of course in a majority of cases, the value of these novelties will be useless, sometimes their thunder will be stolen by more agile members of the community - or not. But who really cares? as Francisco Mojica puts it, finding the pattern of conserved sequences on his computer screen was the happiest day of his scientific life. A tiny, highly intimate emotion to him, a change to come for mankind.

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