From Surveillance Room to Surveillance Lab

In his book “The Wisdom of Crowds”, James Surowiecki recounts the remarkable collaborative research of scientist around the world to find the cause of SARS. What could have taken months or years, took just a matter of weeks to isolate the virus. “The collaborative nature of the project gave each lab the freedom to focus on what it believed to be the most promising lines of investigation, and to play to its particular analytical strengths, while also allowing the labs to reap the benefits – in real time – of each other’s data and analyses.” Scientists collaborate because of what is often called the “division of cognitive labor.” Collaboration:

  • allows scientists to incorporate many different kinds of knowledge in an active way (rather than simply learning from a book)
  • makes it easier for scientists to work on interdisciplinary problems
  • guarantees a diversity of perspectives
  • produces rich results in the form of unique data

Economist Paula Stephan has argued, “Scientists who collaborate with each other are more productive, often times producing ‘better’ science, than are individual investigators.” And social scientist Ettienne Wenger adds: “Today’s complex problem solving requires multiple perspectives. The days of Leonardo da Vinci are over.” In a 1966 study of 592 scientists’ publications and collaborative activities, D.J. de Solla Price and Donald B. Beaver found that “the most prolific man is also by far the most collaborating, and three of the next four most prolific are also among the next most frequently collaborating.”

However, scientist, Gregor Mendal noticed a flaw in the scientific community. He wrote in a famous essay on scientific norms that “triumphant ideas are the ones that explain the data better than any of the others“. Mendal was attempting to address a major flaw in the scientific community where most scientific work never gets noticed. Study after study has shown that famous scientists find their work cited vastly more often than scientists who are less well known i.e. Its not what you know but who you are.

Steps to move from a surveillance room to a surveillance lab:

  1. Think like a scientist – Data is to a surveillance team as chemicals/raw materials are to a scientist
  2. Work like a scientist – Get tools that help you collect and analyze data
  3. Behave like a scientist – Publish your findings in easy to read and understand ways – you already have the attention, unlike the unknown scientist with a great idea

I hope you have many “Eureka!” moments on your surveillance room to lab journey.