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Posted on 1 July 2022 by Marianne Lucien, Guest Author

“Nobody ever said anything brilliant at breakfast,” until now …

Randy W. Schekman (on the right) and Martin Vetterli continued to discuss the topic with young scientists even after the session

Today’s youth are generally not known for being early risers, but at the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting hundreds of young scientists flocked to the German isle for a breakfast discussion on “Scientific Collaboration in Challenging Times.” Among the chatter and clinking of coffee cups, there was a moment when it seemed they might have come only for the catering, but the thought-provoking exchange that ensued proved that young scientists are engaged in the key issues of our time and poised to expedite transformation.

Uphill Climb for Recognition

As the world faces some of its most challenging times, the fate of humankind rests squarely in the hands and scientific advancements of the current and future generations. The pandemic illustrated just how quickly “science can be accelerated,” said Martin Vetterli, President of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL). It demonstrated the power of an international collaboration with open access to real-time data and research findings. The collective scientific response to the pandemic led to the rapid development of mRNA vaccines. Diseases such as Parkinson’s, in which little scientific progress has been made over the past 200 years, could benefit from a pandemic-like, international collaboration. Nobel Laureate, Randy Schekman, is trying to make such a change to benefit Parkinson’s research and to evolve the current publish or perish system of academia.

The challenge young scientists face in choosing to spend time and energy in collaborative research is that it offers little reward in terms of their academic career progression. While it is important to acknowledge individual contributions, the system often favours the work of individuals over the achievements of those who contribute as part of a collaboration. The challenges involved in determining and assigning value to collaborative research presents an unnecessary impediment for the future of science collaboration. Schekman spoke of how pre-print servers and open research publication platforms, such as e-Life, are already impacting the status quo of high-profile scientific publications. While such platforms represent progress, the consensus of those participating in the Science Breakfast session seemed to lean towards an overhaul of the current academic evaluation and reward structure to one that acknowledges the value and contributions of scientific collaboration in a more effective way.

Hearing Diverse Voices

A sea change is necessary; however, for the current academic evaluation processes to inspire and reward international collaboration. Success measures need to reflect the extent in which individuals establish meaningful collaborations and openly share research results, but such a utopian model will take time. Vetterli summed it up by saying, “Science progresses one funeral at a time – according to Max Planck.” He threw down the gauntlet, challenging young scientists attending the session to take on the Herculean task of collaborating to change the culture of academia. He said that one place universities could start is by placing a greater emphasis on quality over quantity of research contributions (published papers) and including impact measures in the evaluation processes. He conceded that while collaboration is a necessity and of considerable value, measuring collaboration is still a tremendous challenge.

Collaboration; however, is not only about evaluating processes. According to Freideriki Michailidou, a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Research Fellow, as well as a postdoc at the Collegium Helveticum and the Laboratory of Toxicology at ETH Zurich, in Switzerland, collaboration is about the “broader scope of diversity and inclusion in science.” She noted how pleased she was to learn this week in Lindau that across the spectrum of scientists – from the most junior to established Nobel Laureates – the scientific community is becoming increasingly aware of the need for greater diversity in science. Michailidou explained, “I feel that the more diverse our community, the better it will be…I am pleased to see that there is a lot of work in the right direction.” The global challenges of our time necessitate diversity – not only gender, racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity, but also diverse perspectives in scientific disciplines, talents, and approaches that allow all voices to be heard.

Barrier-Free Collaboration

Science has often served as a tool of diplomacy – a means to connect people despite political or cultural barriers. “Science is the engine of progress,” said Vetterli who advocates for politicians to take a long-term perspective of the future and the advancement of society. Collectively, science draws people together based upon a foundation of common values. Bringing researchers together has never been more important than it is now as the world faces some of its most serious global challenges. Schekman spoke in the Lindau Science Breakfast about how continued scientific collaboration with China and with Russia might be possible if assurances could be maintained, such as: “no political interference, open lines of communication, no censorship of research results, open access to research results, and, when necessary, freedom to travel.”

Switzerland and the United Kingdom – home to some of Europe’s and the world’s top-ranked institutions – also face political challenges to scientific collaboration. Earlier this year, the European research community was compelled to formally call upon the European Union (EU) for open and barrier-free collaboration among Europe’s research and innovation actors. Scientists in Switzerland and the United Kingdom are currently excluded from parts of the EU’s Horizon Europe programme for political reasons that have little do with science. Signatories to Stick to Science – an initiative set in motion by ETH Zurich President, Joël Mesot and EPFL President Martin Vetterli, alongside Universities UK, Wellcome, and the Royal Society and funding from 6 co-initiator institutions. The initiative urges the EU to rapidly reach association agreements for these two countries so that researchers can continue to contribute both scientifically and financially to strengthen research within the continent and impact global scientific and societal advancement. The consequences of continued exclusion may set back on-going EU research projects and Europe-wide cooperation in world-leading research infrastructures in place for decades such as the Institut Laue-Langevin (ILL) in Grenoble, the new European Spallation Source in Lund (ESS), and even ITER, the experimental infrastructure for fusion energy imagined since 1985. Such collaborations demonstrate the ongoing need for a commitment to scientific collaboration.

Adam Smith, Chief Scientific Officer for the Nobel Prize Outreach, who moderated the morning session, closed it with a nod to Oscar Wilde who said something to the effect that, “Nobody ever said anything brilliant at breakfast.” Smith continued, “happily you have all proved him completely wrong.”

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Marianne Lucien, Guest Author

As the International Communications Officer for ETH Zurich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland), Marianne Lucien engages with media from around the world, writes on science and technology, and develops and implements communication strategies. She dedicates her spare time and energy to family and enjoys alpine skiing and hiking with friends.