Health and Healthcare Systems

10 challenges to scientific collaboration and how to overcome them

Hands holding laboratory flasks

The pandemic has showed the importance of scientific collaboration, but this is threatened by spending cuts Image: Alex Kondratiev on Unsplash

Ruth Morgan
Vice Dean (Interdisciplinarity Entrepreneurship), UCL Faculty of Engineering Sciences, University College London (UCL)
Hans Hilgenkamp
Professor of Applied Physics and Nanotechnology, University of Twente
Rees Kassen
Professor of Evolutionary Biology, McGill University
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  • The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of scientific collaboration.
  • However, there are currently are a number of hurdles to scientists working together, from travel restrictions to a retreat from open-access data.
  • At a time of spending cuts, governments must continue to prioritise collaborative scientific research.

The pandemic has taught us the importance of scientific collaboration. When the first reports of severe respiratory disease broke late in 2019, the international research community came together and within weeks we knew some basic biology. Rapid sharing of epidemiological data revealed the transmissibility of the virus was higher than influenza but less than measles. A genome sequenced in record time and made publicly available revealed the culprit to be a coronavirus. This allowed vaccine development to proceed at an astounding pace.

As we emerge from the pandemic, we will need scientific collaboration more than ever, to tackle global challenges, from climate change to health. Yet there are a number of hurdles to overcome.

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1. Travel restrictions

The pandemic forced scientists to collaborate at a distance. Over the longer term, however, restrictions on travel will have an impact on fieldwork. This could lead to gaps in long-term data sets and, in some cases, the loss of entire experiments and research programs. Without travel, early-career researchers cannot build networks, forge new collaborations and partnerships, or gain the skills and experience necessary to develop into the much-needed experts of the future.

2. The retreat from open access to data

Open access to data benefits both publicly- and privately-funded research. This could not have been more true during the pandemic, when online viral genome repositories supported both vaccine development and viral surveillance. However, a retreat from multilateralism began before the pandemic, and shows little sign of abating.

3. Engaging with the media

With science dominating the headlines during the pandemic, it has never been more important for scientists to work with the media. The media landscape is changing, with outlets making editorial decisions about formats, target audiences and how to navigate their market. Scientists need to be aware of this in order to communicate their research effectively.

4. Improving science communication

Now more than ever, researchers need to be both excellent scientists and effective communicators of their science beyond their primary discipline or field. Science communication skills need to be nurtured, valued and encouraged for thriving scientific collaboration. We need ongoing dialogue between scientists and global leaders, policy makers and those entrusted with governing national and international agendas.

5. Financial cuts

As we emerge from the pandemic, many governments are announcing spending packages to support economies. In some countries this has meant new funding for science, although this has largely been focussed on targeted investments rather than basic research and collaboration. Research investment has remained stubbornly static for decades, and now in many cases large research funding cuts may be expected.

Graph showing the funding for research and development from 1996-2018
Research investment has remained stubbornly static for decades, and now funding cuts may be expected Image: The World Bank

6. Navigating social media

Peer review can now happen in near real-time, thanks to preprint servers, social media, and text messaging apps. Journals are serving as the final repository for papers rather than the source of new information. This trend reflects a broader shift in how scientists communicate, using social media to exchange knowledge. The challenge is to ensure that communication technologies support the democratisation of knowledge and genuine collaboration, rather than creating algorithm-driven echo chambers.

7. Infrastructure and resources

Collaborative innovation needs infrastructure, particularly when it comes to scientists in the global south working together, or working with colleagues in the north. Investments that build capacity across disciplinary, academic and national boundaries need to reduce barriers to international scientific collaboration. This means supporting collaborative research programs rather than research projects; creating agile, rapid and responsive funding; and encouraging talented young scientists gain international experience.


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8. Encouraging interdisciplinary thinking

Effective scientific collaboration transcends traditional disciplinary boundaries. Technological breakthroughs can support this, but we also need to create environments that promote interdisciplinary thinking. The education system needs to actively encourage collaboration between disciplines, as well as between science and industry, business, media, citizens and governance bodies.

9. Academic freedom and integrity

Responsible science requires open discussion, deliberation, and tools for data sharing and collaborative analysis. Collaborations can only thrive when new findings and insights are met with constructive reflection and critical thinking. There is a huge risk to scientific collaboration if the publication of data does not create dialogue but instead leads to an attack on ‘inconvenient findings’ and those that publish them.

10. Curiosity- versus mission-driven research

There is an age-old tension between curiosity-driven research with uncertain long-term impact and 'mission-driven' research targeted at short-term commercial gains. The pandemic showed us the value of supporting both. Early on we needed practical answers quickly, such as: how transmissible is the virus, and how sick does it make us?

As the pandemic progressed, it became clear that we would have to pay attention to how the virus was evolving. This has involved building on years of work on foundational problems like the dynamics of virus adaptation and the predictability of DNA sequence changes.

At a time of financial cuts, governments have a tendency towards funding mission-driven research. To ensure that the world continues to benefit from science and innovation, we must ensure they maintain a balance.

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