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Conducting Science, the HBO way!

Mad Scientist
Hollywood's image of a scientist
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If you were an alien species who had recently come across human existence on planet Earth and only had Hollywood movies as your source to all information, your impression of science would be something like this. 

Scientific endeavours on planet Earth are pursued by solitarily working, half- crazy scientist, who is either chasing the elixir of life, finding the secret chemistry behind making gold or probably bringing back to life, his dead relative with the help of electricity alone.  

If you leave out the repeated stories of Hollywood, the remaining half about scientists still holds true. To the public eye, scientists, even in most prestigious universities are looked upon as half-crazy individuals, but it is the solitary working of scientists that is quite worrisome. 

From the days of Anton van Leuwenhoek to Marie Curie and Watson and Crick, scientists have worked either individually or in extremely small groups of one and two.  Even today, although a scientist might have a big research team, there is an individual who heads it and the others are, to use the industry term, extra pair of hands. The Principal Investigator usually has line of thought that he/she pursues in a particular field of research and follows it for an extended period of time. The proving or disproving of his hypotheses takes him either further into the topic or probably away from the topic but either ways, the process of proving accepting or rejecting a hypothesis is at least asummer project long or in some cases a 5 year PhD long. It might be useful to consider here that unlike Leuwenhoek or the Curie’s who just had to motivate themselves to work, a modern day Principal Investigator is responsible to rally his troops every day which can include snooty post docs, dejected Ph.D candidates, and the know-it-all Master’s students, while also fighting tooth and nail with the University to release that extra bit of funding to accommodate a much needed equipment. The bottom line remains that irrespective of the size of his group, the PI is a solitary scientist driven by his passion for the subject. 

Life of a Principal Investigator
Life of a Principal Investigator
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Fortunately, it does not have to be this way.  Instead of working solitarily on individual projects, scientists could work together as a part of a larger team working towards a similar goal. Much like a Hollywood movie where a special team of elite scientists are brought together under one roof to solve one problem.  So, if we are talking about fighting bone disorders, a multi-disciplinary team of scientists could be assembled who would all look into different aspects of bone disorders, all under one roof. They could have their individual teams working at different locations around the globe, but such a system would encourage quicker sharing of findings among peers, rather than go through the painfully long process of publication. (Click here to read Jasonya's how long is long post about publications) This is not to say that research findings should not be published, but findings shared through common meetings would help other researchers to adapt quickly to new findings and change course where required to avoid pilferage of research time, effort and money. 

One can quickly dismiss such a proposition stating that it would never work. It is hard to believe that a bunch of scientists can come together, leaving aside their differences, their backgrounds, their style of working and work towards a common goal. When put together, the result of their work would probably appear quite indiscernible. But did you know that a team like this does exist. It is probably working even right now, as you read this article. It consists of 18 heads of laboratories that have each been given a lead to follow. Their labs are located in Ireland, Morocco, Malta, Croatia, Iceland to name a few countries and work under the guidance of these lab heads. There are also some specialized labs whose function is to assist these labs wherever required, whether it be raising new infrastructure, supplying existing inventory or procuring new products for them. Different labs take different periods of time to complete their assigned projects , while some even go a step further and share multiple personnel that move across labs from time to time. A central lab then collects all the data from all the labs, puts it in perspective and publishes it on a yearly basis. You might find it hard to believe but people have absolutely loved the result of their work and look forward to it every year. 

Does not sound like a science project. Well, it is not.  The central lab is actually the production house HBO and what we have being talking about is its currently popular show The Game of Thrones.  The 18 heads of labs are actually the 18 directors who come from diverse backgrounds and different working styles. They all have a storyline to follow but work in different shooting locations in the world.  The specialized labs are their costume and armoury departments that coordinate with all the labs and supply them, irrespective of the shooting locations. And if you think that the costume making is an easy task, then you must know that the Margaery Tyrell dress for her wedding with the much loathed Joffery Baratheon required more than 200 man hours of work to make. Creating a knockout gene definitely takes lesser.  

Finally, the work of all the teams is put together by the production house and published as a season of 10 hours every year.  What HBO has managed to do for five years in a row now might look like a logistical nightmare to many but actually is interdisciplinary coordination at its best. As mentioned before, the end result of their work is being appreciated by one and all and there exists a similar set up even in the scientific community that whose work is being appreciated world over. The Large Hadron Collider at CERN, Geneva, is a single location laboratory for scientists from all over the world and consists of thousands of scientists using single experiments to capture various aspects of the data.  New findings that have emerged from this setup have improved our understanding of particle physics and more is expected out of it in the years to come. For those, who were probably skeptical that the HBO analogy would not work in the scientific community, the setup at CERN is a definitive encouragement to this concept. 

Such a setup becomes increasingly relevant for developing economies of Asia who need not develop laboratory infrastructure individually within their geographical boundaries. Instead, money, effort and resources saved by not replicating institutional infrastructure could be pooled into these regional institutes that will cater to the entire Asian region.  Thanks to modern computing devices and apps, communication between teams can be quick and even instantaneous, where necessary.  Lab notebooks can be shared on the cloud where each technician could update his/her results in real time and for all to review. The peer review at this stage of work will also help in correction of study or experiment design early on and also help avoid falsification of data and the shameful retractions of papers that have occurred in the past. Information repositories could be set up for sharing information between these institutions and their digital libraries of universities and teaching hospitals could be merged which will benefit thousands of students studying in these institutions. Over a period of time, certain institutes will develop areas of strength such as cloning, culturing, computational biology, clinical research etc. which can then be utilized to streamline science projects and avoid the duplication of work. Such a setup would have probably allowed researchers Michael Springer (Harvard University ) and Hana El-Samad (University of California, San Francisco,) to work on different aspects on the Galactose uptakes and not end up publishing similar results in the same journal on the same day. 

For long, the Asian scientific community has been following the Western model for conducting its research and has become a follower. With the economy, demographics and the correct mindset in favour, Asian countries must use this opportunity to lead the way and set up a Asian Union of Science whereas ideas, funding and scientists can move freely without any geographical boundaries, thus, benefitting one and all. Such a setup will also help in researching traditional medicine practices which are losing their significance in this modern way of life.

The above post was my submission for the inaugural Asian Scientist Writing Prize, whose winners were announced this week. A Big Congratulations to the winners and also the Asian Scientists Magazine for conducting the competition. As you may gathered by now, my entry did not win anything, but I thought I should share it with everybody.  

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  1. Yes, working with collaboration does give best results in solving issues in scientific community.One such best working example is CGIAR worldwide partnership , a group of 15 research centers where sharing of funds,knowledge and technologies takes place in the field of Agriculture research.

  2. Dear Reader,

    Thank you for dropping by and leaving a comment.

    Like you have mentioned, we need more and more institutes like CGIAR that work together and share expertise.

    Being geographically close would be even better and free movement of personnel, without having restrictions of visa, work permits etc. would promote more collaborations as well.


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