Connected Minds Solve Problems
Tej Kohli is the founder of the not-for-profit Tej Kohli Foundation whose ‘Rebuilding You’ philosophy supports the development of scientific and technological solutions to major global health challenges whilst also making interventions to rebuild people and communities around the world. Tej Kohli is also an impact investor who backs growth-stage artificial intelligence and robotics ventures through the Kohli Ventures investment vehicle.
A recent article in The Economist profiled an ophthalmologist who has had to also become a computer scientist to tackle the challenge of a falling number of ophthalmologists at a time when demand in increasing (in the UK). Similarly my plans for the Tej Kohli Cornea Institute UK Centre of Innovation are increasingly being built around the concept of creating a formal UK research network dedicated to maintaining the transparency and integrity of the cornea.
The research network is a new arm of the not-for-profit Tej Kohli Foundation, and if successful will bring together the best minds from across multiple disciplines and then create situations (physical and virtual) in which those minds can embrace the sparks of connection to devise new solutions.
This is not new thinking. In a 2012 article Nature Magazine claimed a fundamental shift toward new collaboration patterns that were changing the global balance of science. Networks of research collaboration have been expanding in every region of the globe, and is now even challenging the entrenched dominance of the ‘research superpowers’ of US and Europe.
In my recent blog about technology transfer closing the gap between rich and poor, I discussed the importance of spreading the capacity for new innovations to solve challenges into the countries who need those new solutions the most. Now it seems that regional research networks are changing the global balance of research activity and placing more research within developing countries where the results of the research matters most.
This can only be a good thing. This shifting landscape of collaborative research has the in-built potential to reveal different ways of approaching major global health challenges with solutions which are novel and different. Knowledge is simply better when it is transferred and combined by collaboration within a research network. That this seemingly self-evident fact holds true is supported by a single piece of irrefutable evidence: co-authored research papers get cited more frequently. Few scientists surrender credit for their research papers lightly, so we can assume that each sharing of authorship reflects a genuine and tangible collaborative research engagement.
Co-authorship has been increasing exponentially and during the last decade it has exploded. Nature Magazine notes that a typical edition of Nature today has a similar number of Letters to an edition from 60 years ago, but at least four times as many authors. In the early 1980s, papers with more than 100 authors were rare. By 1990, the annual tally with that number exceeded 500 — and it has kept growing. The first paper with 1,000 authors was published in 2004; a paper with 3,000 authors came in 2008. By 2011, a total of 120 physics papers had more than 1,000 authors and 44 had more than 3,000. Many of these were from collaborations at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, Europe’s particle-physics lab near Geneva, Switzerland.
Blurring Borders and Removing Barriers
For the United Kingdom and Germany for example, research collaboration is relatively intense. In 2011, the two countries had around 10,000 joint publications in journals indexed on Thomson Reuters’ Web of Science — double the total in 2003 and about 10% of each country’s total output. According to Web of Science, the United States currently collaborates on 3–4% of its papers with each of China. China’s rapid growth is leading to closer research collaboration with Japan (up fourfold between 1999 and 2009), Taiwan (up eightfold), South Korea (up tenfold), Australia (more than tenfold) and with every other country in the Asia-Pacific region.
India also has a growing web of collaborative research networks with Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, although it is not as frequent a collaborator with China as one might expect. In the Middle East, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have a strong research partnership that is drawing in neighbours including Tunisia and Algeria. The annual tally of joint Egyptian–Saudi Arabian papers rose tenfold in the first decade of the twentieth century and is still growing.
Interestingly, worldwide less than 5% of research papers now have a co-author from the United States, suggesting that the technology transfer element of collaboration is succeeding in stimulating self-sustaining ‘home grown’ research innovations within the world’s developing regions. Latin America has an emerging research network focused around Brazil, which is rapidly increasing its collaborations with Argentina, Chile and Mexico. Africa has three distinct networks: in southern Africa, in French-speaking countries in West Africa and in English-speaking nations in East Africa.
These clusters also indicate that proximity is just one of several factors in research networks. Nigeria, for example, collaborates not with its neighbours in West Africa but with co-linguists in East Africa. This mirrors a global tendency to use paths of least resistance to partnership, rather than routes that might provide other strategic gains.
All of this underlines the importance of creating new research networks, and reflects (in part) my calculus in setting the objective to create the Tej Kohli Cornea Institute UK Centre of Innovation. My hope is not merely to stimulate research, invention and ingenuity amongst UK-based researchers, but to create a centre of gravity around which researchers from the world over can collaborate toward the shared mission of maintaining the cornea in a healthy and transparent state.
In particular, I want the Tej Kohli Cornea Institute to be able to draw in collaborators from regions such as India and Africa, where corneal blindness is disproportionately prevalent and pervasive, because those researchers often better understand so many of the cultural and logistical challenges.
It will be essential for the grand challenge of ending corneal blindness that we build international teams supported by major facilities and rich data, which encourage the rapid spread of knowledge. So the planned Tej Kohli Cornea Institute UK research network will provide access to resources, including funding, facilities and ideas.
Collaboration also increases impact. Collaborative papers published jointly by UK and US authors are cited on average more often than either nation domestically. It also works at the institutional level, so Harvard University gets a boost from collaborative papers with the University of Cambridge. And it follows through to industrial collaboration: when the University of Oxford collaborates with GlaxoSmithKline, for example, the papers are cited roughly four times as often as the world average for their field.
In short, research collaboration works. My plan is to create a simple structure around which collaboration to end corneal blindness can occur.
The risk of research networks is that many scientists may feel obligated to blend their individual objectives into a more crowd-pleasing ‘generic’ one in order to fit within the objectives of the network to access its resources. Maverick thinkers might find it hard to flourish in a highly collaborative world, and so we will need to find a balance that unlocks the power of collaboration without extinguishing the potential for individual brilliance.
After all, a research network comprising hundreds of even thousands of scientists can connect minds and spark creativity that unlocks game-changing new solutions. But only three people can ever share a Nobel prize.