I want to tell you how cyber-infrastructures can enable large research research projects involving specialists from multiple disciplines and why it makes economic sense to develop such an infrastructure.

The most exciting scientific research often involves multiple disciplines. You may have heard of multidisciplinary research, interdisciplinary research, or transdisciplinary research. They are like different levels of intimacy between disciplines. Transdisciplinary science is the most exciting. That’s when you decide to focus on a particular challenge and do what it takes to solve it, irrespective of where the contributions may come from. Good examples of transdiscplinary research are the Manhattan project, the space program, or the sequencing of the human genome.

Transdisciplinary science is not something you can do on your own. It takes a team with people contributing different skills needed to solve a challenge. Many projects in the life sciences now require the active participation of engineers, people with modeling skills, and people capable of developing the necessary information systems. Naturally, they also also require the active involvement of biomedical specialists who can provide the domain expertise, hypotheses to test, and can report the results back to their community.

This approach to scientific research is not without risk. Teams are composed of people who speak different scientific languages and have different interests. The projects are large and complex because of the size of the teams. And as a result they tend to be expensive.So, being in such a project sometimes feels like trying to build the tower of Babel. And the risk of failure is very high. However, it is worth taking because if you succeed, you get a lot of attention. That attention increases the reputation of the team. This translates in high impact publications.

How do we get such diverse groups of people to work together. Computers can help. In my group, we develop a series of software applications for synthetic biology.

These applications are software elements. The challenge is to make them work together into a consistent chain. To make this possible, they need to share a common database in the back end. And they also need servers to host them. The combination of software elements, backend databases, and all the hardware necessary to keep them running is often called cyberinfrastructure.

This type of infrastructure can go a long way to facilitate collaboration between the different stakeholders of a project. We have identified different categories of users of our software. The end-users are the people actually using the applications. The content of this database is generally provided by a different group of users. Finally, the leadership team of a project will mostly care about the reporting capabilities of a the tools. So, very different groups of users access the infrastructure in different ways depending on their role in the project. This makes collaborations a little easier.

So, why would a organization go through the trouble of setting up such an infrastructure? Let’s make an analogy. Unless you have some electrical engineering skills, if I give you a bunch of electronic components, you may not find this gift particularly valuable. Now if these components are assembled on a board, then the value is a little bit more obvious. You may be able to insert this board in your computer to get some new functionality. But I bet that if I give the choice between a board and whole computer, you’d take the computer. So, the components that are part of the computer are more valuable than the ones that are on their own.

It’s a little bit with the same with scientists. Teams of scientists who can work together are much more valuable than a series of individual scientists working on their pet project. The development of such teams is both the result of the culture of the organization but also the infrastructure put in place to facilitate these collaborations. Developing such teams makes economic sense  even for those of us who work in academia. It makes it possible to go after large federal contracts. Because preparing this type o proposal is more difficult than preparing smaller proposals, the competition may not be as intense as with smaller funding opportunity. And the upside of a large proposal is higher than the reward of a proposal with a small budget. And because it is focused on specific problems this approach to scientific research is often more amenable to making a difference in the world by being transferred to the marketplace.

What’s your experience of transdisciplinary science? Use the comments below to share it.

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