Four things I have learned about science as a collaborative endeavour

It’s not an overstatement to say that collaborations are crucial for the success of the John Innes Centre, and partnerships are a vitally important part of our culture here. Our research is strengthened through the sharing of ideas, methodologies, technologies and ways of working.

There is strong evidence to support the impact that collaboration has on research. A comparison of research papers found that those with national collaborations have about 50% greater citation impact than those produced without collaboration. And those with international collaboration have double the citation impact.

I learnt the benefit of interdisciplinary collaborations first-hand in my first postdoc in the 1970s. After my PhD, I moved to a role in the Physiology Department at Yale University School of Medicine. As a plant scientist, this was quite a culture shock. All the other labs in the department were working on human physiology, and working on neurones or gut epithelial cells; I was the only person in the department working on fungi.

Despite working on a completely different biological system, during my time there I realised we had a lot of complementary things to offer each other – particularly around the interpretation of how molecules get across membranes. Based on what I learnt about animal cells in that department, I began to consider whether plants might also use calcium as a signalling molecule. When I left Yale and moved to the University of York, l developed a system to measure calcium within a plant cell and show how calcium changed in response to an environmental stimulus – thereby provoking changes in cellular metabolism.

That remains one of the most fundamental discoveries I have made and since then I have embedded the concept of transdisciplinary working throughout the rest of my research career.

Here I outline four key elements that I have learned about making the most of collaborations.

1. Shared language and understanding are essential to meet global challenges

If we want to make progress against the biggest global challenges in science – such as food security, climate change and health – then transdisciplinary working is absolutely essential.

There is no single right way to do science. It’s important that we learn from others. I described above how I learnt a lot in my years in a Physiology Department. Not just about animal science, but also how to collaborate with people outside of my own area.

It’s important to talk with the people we are comfortable with, but I can’t stress enough how much we all benefit from also talking to the people that we might be slightly intellectually uncomfortable with. We all need to be challenged in our thinking.

And to do that we need to invest time in understanding the language of others – or better yet, developing a shared language to allow us to work together. We need more than just shared intent between different disciplines – we need a shared understanding. And this applies not just to cross disciplinary working, but also to different sectors. Language is particularly important when working between industry and academia.

There are lots of exciting areas of transdisciplinary research that we are beginning to explore in plant sciences. In modern plant sciences, there have been huge advances in computational analysis and AI, and there are enormous benefits to come from using these approaches to interpret genome x environment interactions and understand how the environment impacts gene expression in plants.

One of the most exciting new transdisciplinary collaborations I have seen recently is the new Norwich Institute for Sustainable Development, which brings together plant sciences, agriculture, medicine, nutrition, development studies, economics, business studies, behavioural sciences and environmental sciences in the pursuit of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, with a particular focus on agri-food systems.

2. Multi-stakeholder engagement needs to be built in from the start of major projects

If we want to make progress against the biggest global challenges then we don’t just need to join up different disciplines, we need to bring together different types of players to co-deliver them. We need a range of stakeholders present and engaged with the process of co-designing projects, right from the start. For many of the agri-food projects we work on here at the JIC, those stakeholders can include producers, consumers, businesses, policy-makers, regulators and the public. We must adopt a broad approach to involving stakeholders in joint projects.

One of the great examples I have seen getting this approach right in practice is within the Genetic Improvement Networks (GINs). These are collaborative research networks, which have been funded by Defra since 2003 to generate pre-breeding material that carries novel, profitable and sustainable traits. The key thing about these networks is that as well as connecting academics and industry they also bring plant breeders directly into the conversation. This ensures efforts are placed on key traits that breeders will find useful, and that the material produced is accessible to those who need it, allowing more impact in the longer term.

3. We need a whole systems approach if we want to truly transform

If we’re looking to address some of these big challenges – such as food security, we need a whole systems approach. Transformation will not be successful if only one aspect is changed.

One of the best examples I have seen here of a whole systems approach is a project delivered by a collaboration of 12 institutions. The BRIGIT project was established to build the UK’s capability to prevent a vector-borne plant pathogen called Xylella establishing and to increase our preparedness should it be introduced.

The project involves scientists across the spectrum of entomology, plant pathology, ecology, epidemiology, genomics, molecular biology and social science and tackles the problem from four different angles: outreach activities to imdalprove awareness of Xylella, enhancing diagnostic capabilities, generating a better understanding of the biology of the insect species that may act as vectors here in the UK, and epidemiology modelling to generate models for how it may be dispersed locally and nationally.

The project is wrapping up at the moment. Although I truly hope that Xylella never arrives in the UK, knowing that this preparatory work is going on is reassuring.

4. Infrastructure is needed to ensure this happens seamlessly

As well as considering our ways of working, there is one further element to consider – having the correct infrastructure in place to ensure it happens seamlessly.

The BBSRC’s new principles for strategic investment in research institutes include an expectation that institutes like the John Innes Centre will act as national coordinating hubs for research and “actively engage nationally and internationally with research communities, be involved in leading strategic partnerships and connect across disciplines”.

This is central to our joint vision with The Sainsbury Laboratory – Healthy Plants Healthy People Healthy Planet – known as HP3. In this, we describe our plans to create a hub for world leading plant and microbial research and how this will accelerate scientific progress and impact. We will provide a national resource, which will be open to collaborators from industry and academia, creating an exciting step change in our capabilities and ways for working in this field. By becoming a thriving hub of research collaboration, UK plant science will be strengthened and our disciplinary reach broadened.

If we can get the four points above right then we’ll be in a good position to build collaborations which will deliver impact on a scale that we need to address the global challenges facing us all.

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