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Let the Games begin! Interdisciplinary teams and individuals in science

Just this past week saw the start of the Commonwealth Games. Hosting over 6,500 athletes from 71 countries, the Games is an enormous endeavour, and, if the first four days is anything to go by, one that will be a real success both in terms of participation and delivery of a high quality event. The opening ceremonies included an extended segment on Glasgow itself, and it would have taken a hard individual indeed not to have felt proud of the sometimes very hard history and unique character of this often maligned city.

The Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. A celebration of excellence in sport, and a spirit of common purpose across the nations of the Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. A celebration of excellence in sport, and a spirit of common purpose across the nations of the Commonwealth.

Of course, the venues now completed, the ceremonies past, it is the sport itself that takes centre stage. Like the Olympics, the Commonwealth Games contains some team events, including hockey (field hockey to us Canadians), netball, and rugby sevens. However, by far the emphasis is on sports of the individual, and on the attainment of individual excellence. As a celebration of excellence across a collection of individuals, this of course makes it a very different kind of event compared to say, the just completed 2014 FIFA World Cup, similarly bringing together countries but in a celebration of a single sport, and in which, in the final, the best team beat the team with the best player (albeit not on his best day).

Which brings me to the science. Like sport, science is about the pursuit of excellence. Science can of course be done as a hobby, or purely for personal discovery but at its finest science is about the discovery of the new, and again like sport, the best of the new is achieved by the combination of discipline, long training and bursts of inspired creativity. Recent trends have emphasised the importance and need for multidisciplinary teams in science. Indeed, this was a key subject of the recent Boyd Orr conference, excellently led by the new co-directors of the Centre, Louise Matthews and Richard Reeve. In science which aims to solve real world health problems this is usually critical, due to the complexity of the problems we face, and rabies an excellent exemplar of this complexity, where, despite the existence of an entirely viable vaccine, surrounding issues complicate efforts to eradicate it.

Bigger and broader teams are also the emphasis of the funding bodies, both in terms of training of new scientists, and in terms of the research itself. There is of course considerable sense in removing duplication and enhancing value through partnerships, but such consortia both increase administrative burden, and inevitably lead to greater harmonisation. Can excellence be achieved by teams? Most certainly it can, and there are several palpable examples of this within the Boyd Orr Centre itself. But the hard graft of even the best teams, in sport and in science, must be punctuated by moments of individual brilliance in order to be truly outstanding – the pursuit of excellence is rarely served well by consensus alone. Perhaps the greatest trick of scientific discovery is how to listen to past evidence, and the arguments of colleagues and opponents, filtering out from this what is truly essential and not being swayed by consensus from developing a unique scientific voice. In my view, every scientist should spend his or her forty days in the wilderness – not, as in the Bible, as test of resolve in the face of temptation, but time spent apart from the multi-institutional, multi-disciplinary, multi-voiced environment to identify that voice. Finding that time is, of course, another matter.

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Typhoon Haiyan – The Perfect Storm

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Image of Typhoon Haiyan from the Washington Post

For those of you who have seen me give a talk or a lecture, there is a good chance you’ve heard me use the analogy of ‘the perfect storm’ as a way of describing the unexpected consequences of nonlinearity. Nonlinearity can be viewed as a process of multiplication – multiple any series of numbers by zero, and the result is still zero. Change that zero to any non-zero value, and suddenly you can have an unanticipated, very large effect. The Goldsboro incident (thankfully one that did not happen). The emergence of an infectious disease. The collapse of an ecosystem. Or what some have called the largest recorded storm in history. This particular ‘perfect storm’ will undoubtedly cause others. Loss of infrastructure, increased stress on the resources that do remain, depletion of food supplies and clean water, stress on human health, loss of livestock are all issues, with an unpredictable impact on any number of diseases including dengue, cholera, dysentery and malaria. Their contribution to the already massive toll of human suffering is as yet unknown.

Around the world relief organisations have mobilised to provide help. As reported on BBC Newsnight, one unusual way that you can help is via a crowdsourcing initiative called Tomnod. Crowdsourcing is a way of using the massed power of human presence on the internet to accomplish specific goals. Tomnod is a company that has undertaken what is simultaneously a fascinating and extremely worthwhile project. One things that human beings are exceptionally good at, is identifying patterns. We do this much better than computers, and Tomnod is using this crowdsourcing ability to identify the areas of significant devastation across the Phillipines – follow the link, and you’ll be taken to a satellite image of a small area of the Phillipines where you can click on particular points of damage. Aggregating data over multiple contributors allows Tomnod to help in the targeting of relief efforts. While we all know that there are no simple solutions to the worlds problems, perhaps there is hope that the harnessing of these kinds of nonlinearities will create their own perfect storms.