S. YONA ETTINGER
U.S.-ISRAEL BINATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
In the 1960s and the 1970s a great deal of research was performed which showed that, when laboratories were spaced as little as 100 feet apart, effective communication between them was almost nil. The collaboratories concept offers a unique solution to this problem: it reduces the distance between laboratories to practically zero, thereby increasing effective communication almost to infinity.
The collaboratory endeavor can be especially conducive to interdisciplinary research. The revolutionary changes in the field of life sciences, for example, have incorporated biology more deeply into the wider frame of natural sciences and provoked far-reaching developments in other disciplines. These results have produced new interdisciplinary areas of research such as neuroscience, molecular biology, and environmental studies.
To make significant contributions and achieve breakthroughs in these subjects, cooperation is required among scientists in fields as diverse as physics, psychology, and atmospheric research. However, when interdisciplinary research groups form, they are often criticized for doing research that lacks depth and comprehensiveness. I believe that collaboratories can provide a solution to this problem because they enable experts to join forces in tackling an interdisciplinary topic without compromising the quality of the research.
Experiences at the U.S.-Israel Binational Science Foundation (BSF) entailing international collaboration bear this out. The BSF was established in 1972 by the governments of the United States and Israel to promote and support cooperation between U.S. and Israeli scientists and technologists. Progress achieved by jointly acquiring, analyzing, and using data benefited both partners while saving time and money. The BSF today supports about 3,000 joint research projects manifested through various modes of collaboration. But a collaboratory taking advantage of the high-resolution communications network has now opened even broader opportunities for international collaboration with even greater benefits. One such cooperative research project with multidisciplinary ramifications was pursued by the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Minnesota and the Technion in Israel. The study focused on microstructure in gelling and solidifying complex liquids—a basic research project that also sheds light on the formation of gall bladder stones.
Besides tapping the expertise and facilities available in their own departments, the researchers jointly used a cryotunneling electron microscopy facility at the Weitzman Institute in Israel, a scanning electron microscope in Minnesota, and laser scanning imaging facilities in the Biology Department of the Technion. This collaboration in diagnostic techniques elevated the quality of the research and its anticipated results. As was pointed out by a referee for the project, ''The structural determination techniques are all at the absolute cutting edge of current research." These techniques would not have been possible without the multinational collaboration and the collaboratory.
Another example entailed cooperation among three groups studying phase transitions in layered and random systems. The experimental work was performed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, while the complementary theoretical work was divided between the University of Pennsylvania and Tel Aviv University. An intensive electronic communication between these teams generated 15 joint publications in four years, 13 of which appeared in Physics Review and Physics Review Letters—testimony to the synergistic outcome of research involving complementary disciplines and to the viability of the collaboratory concept. Without daily interaction among the three laboratories, I doubt if they could have been so productive.
A final example concerns a cooperative project between Haifa University in Israel and the State University of New York at Stony Brook to investigate the morphology of sign languages used in the United States and Israel. Sign languages are of special interest to cognitive psychology because they provide a natural laboratory for studying the organization and structure of language. The collaboratory concept can provide a new dimension to this endeavor by expanding the program to other sign languages practiced in many different countries. Ultimately, this multinational research could provide a better understanding of linguistic similarities and differences that could elucidate the well-known difficulties that deaf people experience in acquiring spoken language and perhaps also produce a blueprint for an international sign language.
So collaboratories are indeed an important vehicle for providing new opportunities and opening new frontiers in research. However, key impediments threaten to hamper such efforts. For example, the growing commercial interest in biotechnology and its applications has focused awareness of intellectual property rights in the scientific community worldwide.
Protection of intellectual property rights has a chilling effect on the free exchange of information and research findings and may prevent the fluent operation of collaboratories. In fact, intellectual property restrictions might take an even stricter form in cases of international collaboration. This trend will undermine everyone's results because cutting-edge accomplishments in both basic and applied research have repeatedly been shown to be crucial to the success of high-tech industries, especially for biotechnology and chemical industries.
In a recent study titled The Increasing Linkage Between U.S. Technology and Public
Science3 the contribution of public science to industrial technology is examined. In particular, the authors traced the number of citations of scientific research papers in industry's patent applications. They found that on average 73 percent of the papers cited by U.S. industry patents came from the public science domain. Only 27 percent were authored by industrial scientists. Furthermore, reliance of the biomedical and chemical industries on public science was much more intense. In biomedicine some 17,000 citations were reviewed—12,700 were generated by universities; 3,400 by national laboratories; and 900 by industry.
Expanding the collaboratory program to include international collaboration will help foster first-rate research. Collaboratories can play a crucial role in ensuring the accuracy of data and thus elevate quality in scientific discovery while providing unique opportunities in education. Collaboratories can also provide a tremendous opportunity for small countries to participate in large science projects and make significant contributions to creative state-of-the-art research. For example, in medical training, many schools face difficulties in providing students will real-life experience with rare diseases. An international data bank could be used to develop simulation systems that give medical students hands-on experience. Collaboratory cooperation could also prove essential by allowing institutions to share information and provide real-time professional consultation and thus improve diagnosis and treatment. In short, collaboratories provide fertile ground to enable laboratories with complementary expertise and mutual interests to share information and coordinate research plans irrespective of geographic distance.