In perspective

By David Chao, PhD, President and CEO

One of the most pervasive stereotypes perpetuated in books and movies is the romantic image of the lone scientist: A solitary genius—brilliant, driven, and maybe a bit strange—making a revolutionary scientific discovery while experimenting in the basement.

Solo authors may indeed have had the upper hand in the past. Take Johann Gregor Mendel, whose work in the mid-eighteen hundreds led to the concept of heredity units, now known as genes. He ran a one-man lab in the Moravian monastery where he spent his days as a monk, painstakingly counting the seeds produced by at least 28,000 pea plants. Today, he would be hopelessly outgunned.

Science in the twenty-first century is all about collaboration and teamwork. A wide-ranging study by three professors at Northwestern University demonstrates that teams dominate the modern-day production of scientific knowledge. The authors analyzed 19.9 million scientific papers published over five decades and 2.1 million patents filed, and found that both team size and the contributions of teams to science had increased dramatically over the last several decades.

The shift toward collaborative research raises the question of whether teams actually produce better results. Individual team members may bring specialized skills and knowledge to the table, but coordinating a large group has its cost. In the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald: “No grand idea was ever born in a conference.”

One way to measure the impact and influence of a research study is to determine how often it has been cited by other publications. More influential papers are cited more often, and the number of citations directly correlates with research quality. During the study period, teams consistently published papers with higher impact compared to the work of individuals. What’s more, collaborative efforts were also more likely to produce papers that were singularly influential, triggering the kind of radical innovation long thought to be the sole province of highly creative individuals.

Jim and Virginia Stowers recognized the power of “group genius” and made collaboration an important founding principle of the Stowers Institute. They envisioned a highly collaborative, intellectually stimulating environment where scientists would freely share their ideas and create the kind of creative synergy that spurs great discoveries. A little more than a decade since its doors opened, Stowers investigators have published more than 830 scientific articles and garnered more than 25,000 citations, which serve as tangible proof of the wisdom of the Stowers’ founding principles.

This issue’s cover story digs deeper into one particularly impressive and successful collaboration involving no fewer than seventeen contributors, and illustrates our researchers’ enthusiasm for teaming up beyond the walls of the institute with colleagues all over the world. This, I believe, is one reason for their productivity and high level of success. I hope you will enjoy reading about the power of collaboration and get a taste of what it means to be a scientist in an era when teamwork trumps solitary endeavors.