Multidisciplinarity: Collaborative to the core

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Rick Rylance applauds a study on the lean new model for research teamwork.

The New ABCs of Research: Achieving Breakthrough Collaborations

Ben Shneiderman Oxford University Press: 2016. ISBN: 9780198758839

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The management of research processes and systems has evolved significantly over the past few decades. There has been, for instance, an erosion of the distinction between 'pure' and 'applied' work, conceptually and in practice. And there has been a rise in collaborative relationships, both between universities and between universities and other agencies such as businesses, public-sector institutions and charities. This process is becoming increasingly international.

In The New ABCs of Research, Ben Shneiderman examines the causes of these changes. Some will be familiar. Interdisciplinary work encourages diverse partnerships, and electronic communications enable rapid interaction and dissemination. Research teams are replacing what Shneiderman calls the myth of the lone researcher. The pursuit of both commercial advantage and public benefit are stimulating collaboration; data and resources are being pooled; and governments are supporting international research cooperation for diplomacy and trade. Shneiderman, a specialist in information technology and information systems, delivers a shrewd and timely account of these developments.

He champions collaboration, teamwork and practice-based research. The book intends to serve as a guidebook for “students and junior researchers” and as a “manifesto for change, particularly for senior researchers and policymakers”. There is some tension between these aims. But his argument is coherent: senior scientists and policymakers do need to adapt the present to assist the future, and the generation now being trained, or starting their careers, will carry the torch. Shneiderman has stimulating thoughts on project-based teaching at the undergraduate level and advice for early-career researchers on winning grants, publication and effective writing. All this is hands-on and helpful, and one wishes it had been said more loudly in the past. But his proposals for policymakers do not extend much beyond exhortation.

The core principles of The New ABCs of Research are delivered in two recurrent acronyms. The ABC of the title stands for “applied and basic combined”, whereas SED is “science, engineering, and design”. The latter, Shneiderman argues, can deliver the former (which also stands for, in the book's subtitle, “Achieving Breakthrough Collaborations”, Shneiderman's stated ambition).

Of the three SED elements, Shneiderman is unadventurous on science and engineering; on design he is more stimulating. Drawing on contemporary theories of “design thinking”, he notes that design is not a matter of efficiency or refinement, but rather a “human-centered process” essential for the discovery of meaning and function. He sees it as imbued with the empathy necessary for identifying human needs, “which are then distilled into an actionable clarification of the problem”. Shneiderman is ambitious, envisioning collaboration between designers, scientists and engineers to tackle globally important issues.

The book is strongest in the areas in which Shneiderman is most enthused, such as the advantages of teamwork or the concept of prototyping as research in practice, for instance using 3D modelling and computer-assisted virtual design tools. His discussion of the challenges and potential of big data and open access as ways of sharing research findings and approaches to social issues is informed and thoughtful. There is a refreshing pragmatism about his attention to matters such as the business of making a research career. Shneiderman is good on career psychology, and on the scarcity of women at professorial levels in particular. He is especially good on the human dynamics of collaboration. Alongside sensible advice on the dos and don'ts of partnerships and the optimal size and mix of skills in groups, he pays attention to matters such as leadership, status management, brokerage, goal-setting and communication among different personality types.

But The New ABCs of Research can be over-schematic and repetitive. Its acronymic principles pop up like alerts on a smartphone. Clichéd metaphors (for example seeds, root and flowers) stand in for descriptions of the dividends of interdisciplinary work or painstaking policy recommendations. Zealotry sometimes erodes the book's gravitas.

Shneiderman provides several case studies, including sketches of ABC-effective research organizations, such as the German Fraunhofer Institutes, or Bell Labs in the United States. Most interestingly, he discusses individuals including Nathan Eagle, founder of Jana, a company that specializes in deploying mobile technologies as local solutions to issues in the developing world, for example to encourage blood donation. But these studies tend to serve not as moments for exploration, but as campaigning examples of ABC in practice. That over-insistence is a touch reminiscent of pop business-studies books for under-confident entrepreneurs.

Like several books of its ilk, I wished it was both longer to substantiate the case, and shorter to get past the too-readily recognizable. But overall, The New ABCs of Research deserves a readership for the boldness of its ambition and the promise of its ideas. They deserve debate and implementation.

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