First published in 1869, Nature is the world’s leading multidisciplinary science journal that claims to publish the finest peer-reviewed research of the moment. I’ve been reading articles from this throughout the pandemic as it seems as good a way of tuning into the the science zeitgeist that is ruling our world as any other. In the email that summarises papers included in that particular issue is a ‘quote for the day’. This one featured in the editorial of the edition of the 16th of June this year:

“The future lies in standing on the shoulders of crowds” and then:

“Forget ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ — today’s science is all about collaboration.”

The edition’s title was: ‘Research collaborations bring big rewards: the world needs more’ and is devoted to COVID-era research collaboration and “the benefits to science and society of working across borders, cultures and disciplines.” It states: “The most important ingredient in making collaborations work is commitment: to producing research that is relevant, and to understanding many angles and perspectives.”

Also, from the same piece, Yvonne Lewis and Richard Sadler in their work involving university and community together researching water contaminated with lead in Flint, Michigan recommend: “spend less time and attention meeting metrics of performance, such as papers published and grants procured, and more time nurturing relationships.” But Anna Hatch ( San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment) thinks collaboration is challenged by the fact that: “many of the structures and mechanisms that evaluate and reward science are still those of the lone scientist.”

It is interesting to consider this precedenting of collaboration in a field that abounds with the big names of individual science geniuses. In recent times certain individuals, selected for their work with government throughout the pandemic have gained the celebrity status previously only afforded to rock stars, entrepreneurs, creatives and inventors. My impression of much of the activity that has given rise to and developed from COVID-19 has been that far from being a testament to collectivity and collaboration, individual platform performance has been the order of the day.

Collaboration is one of those ‘given goods’ that we read about in policy and management documents from every field of human endeavour. So many assumptions and generalisations abound that, if examined in real, daily life, do not stack up. In the nineties I did a Masters level degree on professional educational psychology and my dissertation was about multi professional collaboration. This is a topic that is as relevant now as it was at the time and will be for years to come. In my study that focused upon the many professionals involved in a preschool home visiting service for families of children with additional needs, I discovered a rich tapestry of viewpoints and professional practice, no shortage of ideological and practical challenge and a general agreement that collaboration ultimately rested upon good quality communication. Looking back at my conclusions it’s obvious that my findings were nothing very surprising. Indeed, it might be said that what I claimed was something that is so often said about psychology, i.e.that it states the ……… obvious”.

Nevertheless, my interest in this area continued and was again, from 1998 until 2011, the focus of further research. This time I did a doctoral level study of teachers’ work with other teachers. Surprisingly, of the many teachers interviewed only a relative minority referred overtly to collaboration. Of those that did there was a significantly higher number of teachers in management roles and these were mainly in primary as opposed to secondary schools. As many challenges as benefits were described so again, I could only conclude that it was an area ripe for further in-depth research and that the official, unfailingly optimistic viewpoint was mainly management rhetoric rather than on-the-ground, daily working reality.

So do I believe in collaboration and its power to achieve great things? Of course! But I do not think it is achieved through policy, government or management mandate or even commercial incentive. I believe it can only happen when it is wanted and created by individuals engaged in meaningful (to the individuals) mutually beneficial activity. I also believe it takes a great deal of honesty, good quality communication and reciprocal respect. Considering some of the characteristics and behaviour of many in the public spotlight at present I am a bit pessimistic. Can true collaboration happen in public and corporate life? Perhaps it is much more likely to happen in the private lives of individuals? If so, is the rhetoric of collaboration so freely prescribed by those in power and with voice helpful, let alone honest? Maybe, as Lewis and Sadler suggest, it is better to give individuals the time to nurture their relationships? I would suggest trust might be a helpful ingredient too.

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