Solving the seemingly insoluble; it is no mean ambition, the aspiration of the Centre for Unusual Collaborations (CUCo). Drawn from various institutions, researchers working in surprising combinations are getting their teeth into societal challenges – and finding themselves individually challenged to their limits. “These days I am pretty expert at what I do, but now I’m facing completely new challenges,” admits Daniël Lakens of TU/e, one of the researchers within the collaborative project ‘The Power of One’.
Always enthusiastic about new initiatives he certainly is not, confessed Lakens a couple of months ago to a journalist writing a piece on this unusual dream team of academics for national newspaper AD. But CUCo, in which researchers with very different skill sets and backgrounds are clustering their strengths, sparked his interest before it was even launched. “The idea is to encourage something that is actually very difficult, which is to get academics who are usually busy working on their own thing to take a step back and consider: ‘Where else could my expertise be useful? And suppose I start collaborating with others from way beyond my own field?'”
Collaboration in academia could always be counted on to kindle the interest of Associate Professor Lakens at the Human-Technology Interaction group (Department of Industrial Engineering & Innovation Sciences). “I myself research how researchers can increase the quality and efficiency of their research – and collaboration is an aspect that offers significant scope.” Despite this, as he goes on to say, “Achieving short-term goals remains the default setting among academics. ‘If I just finish off this paper, and then that paper…’ This work can easily be done solo since you are likely doing the research alone. And solo is also how you function best as a researcher within the ‘system’ as it stands and within the limitations it imposes on such things as time and resources.”
“For a doctoral study, the necessary investment and the planned outcomes are very clear”
– Daniël Lakens, Associate Professor in Human-Technology Interaction
This is why CUCo is keen not only to bring people together, but to give them a sum of money that they can use, according to Lakens, to “unlock some time for themselves”. Initially, these people will not be the very youngest guns (of whatever gender) in academia since the center has set its sights on “researchers with some five to ten years’ experience. Let’s try bringing these people together, and giving them the space they need, carved out with grants. This is a pretty bold choice, and one not focused on short-term output.”
He clarifies: “For, say, a doctoral study, the necessary investment and the planned outcomes are very clear. A PhD candidate costs you roughly two hundred thousand for four years and they write a couple of papers – output may even be a little higher if the candidate is very productive. You supervise them, you help them to consider and investigate what they are going to do. And eventually a thesis is produced, with a certain output – it is all highly structured.”
Which is precisely what any collaboration within the Centre for Unusual Collaborations is not. “There is much more scope for unstructured collaboration, for it not being entirely clear what the outcome should be. This is a vision you aren’t likely to see elsewhere.”
Let’s just flag up that initially Lakens had no aspirations at all to join one of the research projects within CUCo. As a researcher with an explicit interest in the research process and in collaboration, he was approached to give a talk at one of the first meetings about the new center, after which he was invited to sit on the board.
Seeking the click
“I find it fascinating to see how you can bring together a group like this and how people with different interests might do something much more interesting when they collaborate. Mainly, I wanted to watch, learn more about that process, to give advice.” So now he is no longer doing this solely as a board member, but also as a participant in the research project The Power of One. This is one of the four projects currently running, for which the seed was sown just under a year ago during one of CUCo’s first matchmaking gatherings.
“The first step is to find a couple of people in specialties that appeal to you. After that the brainstorming begins, the getting to know each other and the exploration: is there a click, is there potential?” If there is a click, the researchers who are keen to work together can apply for a first grant: the Spark grant as it is known, good for a sum up to 10,000 euros. “This is unquestionably a network grant; it allows people to seriously sit down with one another to better understand each other’s expertise and to discover how, in concrete terms, they can collaborate on overlapping interests.”
An outcome of this phase might be that a planned collaboration does indeed look promising but that the researchers involved have plenty of scope to take things further via traditional routes, perhaps because the collaboration could piggyback on existing grant proposals. “In that case there are already well-marked paths by which you can pursue your planned collaboration and efforts within CUCo come to an end.”
If this is not the case, the researchers can try to secure a second, larger grant: the Unusual Collab grant, for proposals with a budget between 50,000 and 300,000 euros. “Then it’s no longer about networking; a concrete plan is required. Not a plan along the lines of, ‘By adding this technology, we expect to be able to produce a battery that is 12 percent more efficient.’ It is not necessarily about this kind of output, but about the joint exploration of an interesting question.”
The Power of One
And in fact, this question, as it is within The Power of One, could be simply an issue that an individual researcher like Lakens might otherwise never have considered. This project (whose other members include TU/e researchers Daniel Tetteroo and Mathias Funk) plans to chart the unheard voices in our society. These are people who are easily excluded to some degree from, say, an academic study in a hospital – perhaps due to something as basic as lacking a command of the language in which a questionnaire or form is written.
As sketched in the project description: researchers and professionals are inclined to focus on what they see as being the ‘the average individual’. Consequently, a blind spot is created for anyone who is – to some extent – different and the needs of this group often remain invisible. “While whatever is developed in this kind of hospital-based research is also intended for these people,” says Lakens.
The hospital has become one of the three subthemes within The Project of One. The second sub-project is all about people in the LGBTQ+- community in the workplace; the third is about improving neighborhoods in which some residents are never reached.
So how do you reach the unseen and unheard groups? This is not a question that in the normal run of things would occupy Lakens, who has joined the group tackling the hospital subtheme. “You could even put it more strongly: in my research sector it is customary to avoid seeking out people who don’t want to take part. Of course, the occasional critical voice in our field says we should do more to be inclusive, but the typical response is ‘that’d be really tricky.'”
“These are very different worlds that normally don’t converse much”
– Daniël Lakens, Associate Professor in Human-Technology Interaction
It’s another ballgame when “very different worlds that normally don’t converse much” come together in a project like The Power of One: from behavioral sciences to health and organizational psychology, from culture and industrial design to immunology. By his own account, Lakens is collaborating mainly with Marianne Boes, a pediatric immunologist at UMC Utrecht (read more in the panel below). “Talking about how they and about how we do research, we are struck by the differences. Qualitative research is something they almost never do; interviewing people, for example, teeters on the edge of their notion of science. Whereas I know nothing about their procedures but I do know a thing or two about people.”
Another example of these differences concerns the payment of test subjects involved in a study – a fairly common practice at TU/e, says Lakens, “but at the medical department people are rarely paid, not even if they have to come back a couple more times. That’s seen as a type of conflict of interests. But it has consequences for who can take part; if someone isn’t paid for their time, they aren’t likely to participate, especially if they could be doing paid work elsewhere.”
“Added to this,” as he goes on to say, “you’re dealing with simple things, like what if people can’t speak the language? Take an example from the hospital, they might not have the time and the money to get the consent form for a study translated – so consequently some of the patients might be happy to participate but cannot give their permission. Then you might wonder: what’s our priority? It might, after all, be worth discussing this kind of thing once in a while.”
Realization and reflection
The unusual collaborations within CUCo can spawn the much-needed initial impulse for considerations and reconsiderations such as these, thinks Lakens. “You are offering another discipline a moment, as it were, of realization and reflection in which they may think, ‘You know, it has been a bit of problem in recent years, the decline in people taking part in our studies.’ Or, ‘Yes, it’s true, perhaps this or that is a little odd.'”
His own light bulb moment came early on when he realized that this question, to which he had previously paid little attention, was in fact highly interesting and useful – and it came about in part thanks to a similar question raised by Eindhoven Library and triggered by this project. Lakens: “More and more aspects of the library, including its services, are going digital. So, like others, they are preoccupied with the question of inclusivity: how can we reach those people in our neighborhoods who we know would also benefit from our services? In its own way, any library reaching out like this is trying hard to hold together our society, in many ways increasingly split by differences between groups.”
Within The Project of One, it must be said, the question posed by Eindhoven’s library’s isn’t one for the researchers, “but we are considering whether to start a second project for it. At least, the discussions so far have been good. Without this collaboration within CUCo something like this is unlikely to have come about. In any event, it’s rarely been my experience that a party outside of science, like the library, says, ‘This is something we really need’ and actively seeks collaboration, rather than just using the end result.”
“In future we may well see that our contribution towards solving a much bigger problem was more significant than I could have achieved working alone”
– Daniël Lakens, Associate Professor in Human-Technology Interaction
Individual research is usually easier to do, acknowledges Lakens, and “scores more science points for less work. But perhaps that work is less important to our society. Within CUCo, researchers jointly take on a difficult challenge in order to achieve something that alone they probably could not have achieved. In a sense, the process is a little more ‘messy’ and in the first year it probably has less impact than if I were doing individual research – but in future we may well see that our contribution towards solving a much bigger problem was more significant than I could have achieved working alone.”
Not that when it comes to individual research versus collaboration, he prefers one to the other, Lakens hastens to add. “Rather, I see collaboration as a diversification of the things I do. I’ve always thought it a good idea to spend, say, 10 percent of my research time on something that isn’t useful to me in the short term, but that longer term helps solve a bigger societal problem. But in practice how do you organize that? Now I’m setting aside some of my research time for something that I otherwise wouldn’t do.”
Yet, as he is realizing, this is also proving fruitful for himself. “I am learning something completely different; that is relevant and at this stage of my career very enjoyable too. Of course, I do still learn something new quite regularly but these days I’m pretty expert at what I do. Working within CUCo takes me into challenging new terrain.”
The Power of One project has been up and running for a good nine months. Each of its subthemes has a weekly meeting, the preparation for which, like collecting the necessary wide-ranging data, is usually done by a research assistant. In addition, the project group for The Power of One meets on average once a month, under the guidance of a support team from an external company. “We are such a diverse team; they help us, for example, to structure our thoughts. So, for instance, they’ll have someone moderating our meetings and producing what you might call a visual summary of what we are doing.”
Lakens feels it is still a little too early to discuss his opinion of how successful the Centre for Unusual Collaborations is, or will become. “The strategic alliance is working with an eight-year plan; after the first four years an evaluation will be held and the plan for the next four years decided. We aren’t yet a quarter of the way along that road. But we are all very enthusiastic.”
He concludes: “Down the line we’ll need to have the feeling that we did something useful and that it gave rise to something interesting, from an academic and societal perspective.’ When a collaboration like the one with the library materializes, then I’ll think of this as a successful framework. Or when as a group we are doing a project for the National Science Agenda. The center is not a long-term client; the aim is to facilitate collaborations in the hope that they will stand on their own two feet. Then it will have been worthwhile.”
“People sense, ‘This is exciting’ – but are also cautious”
Marianne Boes, in her position as an associate professor in Pediatric Immunology, is attached to UMC Utrecht. She also does research within the CUCo project The Power of One, working alongside Lakens.
A luxury is how Boes describes it, the opportunity she has to spend part of her working week (and some leisure hours, admittedly) doing research within CUCo. “I have been a laboratory researcher for a good while now, I’ve reached a certain point in my career, have a permanent position, and can add this to my portfolio. But someone with a temporary contract, who still has to prove themselves and must reach certain milestones or else the next career step will be closed to them, would perhaps have to think long and hard before taking on this commitment. The academic world is so hugely competitive.”
Competitive and, what’s more, conventional, with palpable reservations when it comes to unusual collaborations like those within CUCo, affirms Boes. “As an example, we have a weekly online meeting here with all heads of labs. Whenever someone gets another article published in this or that journal we’re all delighted for them. And then I share the news: ‘There’s a cool new institute based on collaborations with societal relevance’ – and it fails to get a reaction.”
So yes, she is picking up some resistance here and there in the science field. Or, best-case scenario, wait-and-see curiosity. “People sense, ‘There’s funding here, this is exciting, this could be something,’ but they are also cautious about taking the leap. ‘It’s great you’re doing this.'” But it is a leap she is taking with pleasure and conviction. “I feel strongly that this is good, that we need to move towards ways like these of working and collaborating, to offer more societal relevance. A past dean here said once, ‘Academics these days are much too busy building a career, have set their sights on becoming a professor – but that’s not what it’s all about, is it?'”
Strange and inspiring
And so the academic world will need to change, especially from within, thinks Boes – hopefully stimulated to do so by academic adventurers like herself, who try and infect others with as much of their conviction, enthusiasm and experience within CUCo as possible. An endeavor she doesn’t find at all difficult. “This collaboration is so incredibly enjoyable! It is strange, but above all very inspiring to see how talented people with very different academic backgrounds view a problem differently, approach it differently, and put forward very different, good suggestions.”
About her collaboration specifically with TU/e staffer Lakens, Boes is enthusiastic: “I think he is extraordinary; he really thinks about research on a meta level. Whereas I think more like someone in the hard sciences: ‘I have a problem, how can I understand and solve that problem?’ I don’t spend time thinking about how to do research, I just do it. But now when I do think about it, I can see that some of our processes aren’t working too well. Then very quickly Daniël realizes: ‘Perhaps we need to take a look at this or that.'”
“In a dynamic project like this there is no room for anyone tempted by the allure of status to outstay their welcome”
– Marianne Boes, Associate Professor in Pediatric Immunology
Boes doesn’t imagine for a moment that she’ll be done with The Power of One after the first year. “We have now identified the problems, we are seeing that the representation of patients in particular studies is not good, but we haven’t yet offered any solutions.” This doesn’t diminish the fact that she most definitely views the project, including its membership, as a living process. “It may be that next year different expertise is needed, or a particular civil society partner. In a dynamic project like this there is no room for anyone tempted by the allure of status to outstay their welcome.”