To collaborate, or not to collaborate, that is the question
The successes achieved by the IMF’s International Myeloma Working Group (IMWG) are due, in large part, to collaboration. Bringing myeloma researchers together to produce consensus guidelines and to brainstorm about new research ideas, such as the Black Swan Research Initiative® – the IMF’s “Myeloma Moonshot” – has produced significant breakthroughs, advanced understanding, and improved patient outcomes.
But where did the helpful new ideas come from? Who is thinking about what to do next? And how do they find the time to think in this distracted world?
A recent article in The Economist called “The Collaboration Curse” draws attention to several drawbacks to constant collaboration. In many organizations, 70 to 85% of the time is spent in meetings. Open-office plans definitely work against any quiet time to think. Cal Newport, writing in the Harvard Business Review, discusses what he calls “collaborative overload,” which he discusses in his book, “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World”.
Breakthroughs occur in serendipitous and unexpected ways
Lack of time to focus is a large part of the problem, Newport asserts, and this is certainly true in the myeloma community. Everyone is so busy meeting, presenting, taking care of the paperwork—not focused on real work. Thus, escaping from this overload situation is what is really required. A bit of insight into why the time to think might be valuable for cancer researchers can be found in a Washington Post Op-Ed by Dr. Vinay Prasad of Oregon Health & Science University. He notes that “… scientific discovery is hard to predict and breakthroughs occur in serendipitous and unexpected ways.”
Yes, researchers need time to explore different questions, different answers. Researchers need time to think. In the IMF’s Myeloma Moonshot, for example, the overriding principle is to explore multiple options at once. Right now, different researchers are exploring several different blood tests that may be used to monitor minimal residual disease (MRD) in order to understand the biology of persistent or recurrent MRD-positive disease and help direct treatment strategies.
Importance of time for deep thinking in research
But young investigators with new ideas—which can emerge from the deep thinking that occurs in a PhD thesis-type environment or perhaps a short sabbatical—can certainly help expand our understanding. So I would encourage the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to prioritize funding for such new researchers versus re-funding established investigators (with good grant scores), which tends to be the current priority.
The IMF is encouraging young, new investigators to apply for grant dollars to solve the problems of residual MRD and develop decisive therapies. When the need is clear, the dollars will be found and the way forward clarified.
Thus, although research must be collaborative to achieve a common goal, it is equally important that individual researchers have the freedom and time to think. This is what Cal Newport calls “deep work.” The IMF and our Black Swan Research Initiative team are not giving up on collaboration, but not everyone needs to be collaborating all the time.
I will keep you posted on how “deep work” combined with collaboration is going!
Dr. Brian G.M. Durie serves as Chairman of the International Myeloma Foundation and serves on its Scientific Advisory Board. Additionally, he is Chairman of the IMF's International Myeloma Working Group, a consortium of nearly 200 myeloma experts from around the world. Dr. Durie also leads the IMF’s Black Swan Research Initiative®.