IDBS Blog | 14th December 2012

The Virtual Cup of Coffee

Could it be the next breakthrough in scientific collaboration?

As a wise man once noted, science is the search for shared knowledge. And in my view it’s the word – share – that is the most important part of the process, especially in the fast moving world of R&D.

As Steven Johnson pointed out at TED, face-to-face lab meetings (maybe over a cup of your favorite brew) are where all the latest thinking can be opened up to be discussed, scrutinized, pulled apart, reassembled, added to other ideas, and then built on to create real innovation.

That’s not so surprising, given that at heart most scientists are particularly social people who are terrific at communicating at a personal and local level. But those skills start to show cracks when you bring groups together or they are forced to communicate over a distance – indeed I’ve even seen people have trouble communicating between different floors!

Paper… who uses paper anymore?

So are paper reports or scientific literature useful in bridging geographical gaps? They have their place, but where is the interaction to stimulate productive debate? There is the net of course, but despite its connectivity, more barriers seem to appear every week. So with the opportunities for real social interaction disappearing daily, we stand to lose a frightening amount of potential innovation.

Dynamic, rich content dialogue – perhaps fuelled with just a little caffeine to get the grey cells firing – is what is needed.

Collaboration is good. Good collaboration is better.

Today’s business mantra has it that collaboration is the way forward. I agree. However, it must produce data in a shared and open way. All too often data summaries are delayed by the reporting process. That leads to poor communication, with far less context, which can result in a lack of trust.

One answer would be to get everyone involved to share their experimental data over a coffee in the canteen. No easy feat if your organization happens to be spread across several sites or around the world!

So now more than ever we need to embrace new ways of socializing. The new virtual world of social media and instant messaging are great ways to communicate. If you add to that the new opportunities for tagging, commenting and sharing, a new more social scientific world starts to emerge.

Yes, it needs to be done in a controlled way. Yes, it needs to be secure. But, when you boil it down, all I’m arguing is that the only way to do this is to start managing our data better and then liberate it through multidisciplinary enterprise information systems.

The cup of coffee is, of course, optional. Tea would do just as well.

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