collaboration is important

Sixty years ago the British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow (1905-1980) delivered his famous lecture The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, published later the same year in book form. FT columnist Tim Harford celebrates the occasion this week in a column that reminds me that IIASA, the Austrian research institute with which I have been associated since my retirement from the UN in 2004, provides a meeting place for mathematicians, statisticians, social scientists -from sociologists to economists- and natural scientists -from biologists to physicists- to work together. This is an important public service, as Snow’s lecture and Harford’s column clearly show.

Harford writes that Snow’s lecture unfortunately “is dimly remembered as a lament about the mutual incomprehension between arts and sciences, wrapped up with some pompous anecdotes about Oxbridge high table and airy generalisations about the dynamism of scientists”, then continues:

Nevertheless, Snow was on to something important. …. Yes, the classicists need to work with the scientists, but the physicists also need to work with the biologists, the economists must work with the psychologists, and everyone has to work with the statisticians. And the need for collaboration between technical experts has grown over time because, as science advances and problems grow more complex, we increasingly live in a world of specialists. [Emphasis added.]

The economist Benjamin Jones has been studying this issue by examining databases of patents and scientific papers. His data show that successful research now requires larger teams filled with more specialised researchers. Scientific and material progress demands complex collaboration.

Tim Harford, “Real change requires experts to collaborate“, Financial Times, 3 May 2019.

There is much more in the full column. Tim Harford is author of The Undercover Economist (2011) and most recently Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy (2017).

Here is an ungated link to Tim Harford’s 5 April 2019 FT column. You can sign up there for email notifications of his May 3rd and future columns.

Here is a link to Snow’s 1959 lecture.

And here is an ungated link to the paper by Benjamin Jones that Harford cites:

The Burden of Knowledge and the ‘Death of the Renaissance Man’: Is Innovation Getting Harder?“, NBER Working Paper No. 11360, May 2005.

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