February 25, 2011

Scientific collaborations

Science doesn't happen in a vaccum. Despite the fact that scientist are usually depicted as recluses that spend the majority of their days (and nights) in the lab chasing new ideas and doing experiments, scientists are actually quite communicative. You could almost refer to them as social butterflies (in their field at least). The reason for that is quite simple. Specialization is the key not only in science but also in real life. Or, in other words, would you preferred to have your taxes done by an accountant or your butcher?

Most scientists are specialist in a defined field so that they can focus on solving a particular problem. The problem with too much specialization is that you lose track of the big picture and neglect to integrate your research with other results. Collaborations are the remedy to this problem. If scientists encounters a phenomenon that can not fully describe by their methods and experiments in which they are specialized, they turn to other experts in their field that have access to other methods, instruments or area of expertise. Of course, as a young researcher you don't have a large network available to you but usually you are introduced by your supervisor, make contact after talks or poster sessions at conferences or just have a drink with the people you want to talk to at the hotel bar. Scientists are a very open group of people because we all share the same idealism about research and progress. The pictures in this blog post show the scientific collaborations in the World and Europe from 2005 to 2009 and are courtesy of Oliver Beauchesne and flowing data.com. Also check out the zoomable worldmap here.

Most scientific papers that are written are not the product of a single group of researchers in one lab but by a number of groups that all contribute. These contacts are mainly made during scientific conferences or in research networks (like the european FINSysB network). By pooling their resources researchers are able to produce more and better research than they could if they were working alone. The exchange of ideas is at the very core of science right next to the scientific method and peer review. So the next time you see a single scientist saving the world in his small lab without ever talking to anyone in a movie or on television, you know how likely that is...

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