No Scientist is an Island

The myth of the lone scientist working tirelessly into the night in his converted garage lab is compelling, but fictional (at least over the last 100 or so years), according to the panelists at How to Save America’s Knowledge Enterprise, a May 21 symposium sponsored by Future Tense (a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate magazine).

Take some of the iconic figures of science and technology: did they work alone?

  • Thomas Edison directed a research laboratory with as many as 200 researchers.
  • Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard worked out of a garage, but they were working under a fellowship from Stanford University, under the mentorship of Prof. Frederick Terman.
  • Albert Einstein was on the faculty at Princeton University.
  • The Manhattan Project is remembered in terms of a few of its most famous scientists, but at one point it employed roughly 130,000 people.
  • Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple Computer, benefited from the knowledge he gained building mainframe computers at Hewlett Packard. He and co-founder Steve Jobs were members of the Homebrew Computer Club, a source of encouragement and inspiration.

My previous employer, High-Performance Technologies Inc. (now a part of DRC) was the administrative partner in a consortium involving academics from Stanford University, Morgan State University, New Mexico State University, and the University of Texas at El Paso, and the Army Research Laboratory. Army researchers drew on the academics’ expertise in high-performance computing, and the academic researchers gained an opportunity to work on solutions to a set of real-world problems, with a defined group of end-users.

Before that, I worked at the Office of Naval Research, which funds the Naval Research Laboratory. Even though the Navy has its own corporate laboratory, it still funds hundreds of research projects in academia and private industry. Why? Because the broader pool of expertise brings in novel solutions, researchers working in academia and industry see problems from different angles than researchers in a government laboratory.

But that’s just applied science, you say. True, these projects tend to be very goal-focused. But even for purely basic or theoretical science, collaboration provides insights and ideas that transcend the limits of the lone scientist’s imagination. Not only that but there is just no substitute for validating one’s theories against facts in the real world.

The panelists at Monday’s symposium agreed: research is not a solitary pursuit, but rather, an ecosystem — a densely linked network of scientists, engineers, and end-users who constantly provide each other with feedback and new capabilities.

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