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It helped us land on the moon, discover the Higgs boson and map the human genome. Now, Big Science — where academics across many disciplines work with industry and government to solve a particular issue — is equipping us to tackle COVID-19 and its impact on policy, the economy, society and healthcare. If we are to solve environmental, economic and societal challenges, and fully fund our research, we need to shatter the disciplinary divide and embrace Big Science, writes Prof Mark Hutchinson, Director of the Centre for Nanoscale BioPhotonics (CNBP).

For too long government, academics and industry have treated science disciplines like we treat organs of the body; we isolate them, take them out of context and experiment with them. Each scientific discipline is isolated from the others — as well as from the arts, humanities and social sciences — and interrogated to the nth degree. And then, when we try to bring it all together, we’re confused when we can’t work together effectively.

Big Science moves beyond this because it dissolves those artificial boundaries. The speed at which the world is changing — environmentally and technologically — means it is vital for scientists and researchers to use a common language of science that is accessible across disciplines. And we can’t wait for research to stack on top of each other. Everything needs to happen in parallel and in a coordinated way, which requires the model for how we do research to shift from these vertical isolated pillars into a horizontally integrated convergence of the science.

The term Big Science was first coined by US physicist Alvin Weinberg in 1961. Its origins are found in WWII, when the US Government sponsored a large-scale research program bringing together physicists, chemists and biologists: the Manhattan Project. Post WWII, Big Science continued to evolve. CERN, the Human Genome Project and the Apollo Program all exist because researchers across many disciplines worked with industry and government towards a shared vision.  

The approach to managing and finding a cure for COVID-19 needs to be Big Science in action.

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It is more than just a global research collaboration that seeks to understand the virus; instead, boundaries are blurred between research, industry and policy. What makes it Big Science is the coordinated effort involving government, industry, epidemiologists, medical technicians, virologists, vaccine developers, manufacturers, immunologists, population psychologists, policy makers, health and social scientists, economists and communicators.

This coordinated — Big Science — approach is exactly how we should work across all of science research whether it’s addressing global, regional or local challenges.

Over the 7-year life of the CNBP, we have embraced the Big Science approach, with great success. Our researchers say it has changed forever how they will design and conduct their research and collaborations. There are now 15 spin-out or start-up companies involving CNBP researchers. Our 30 industry partnerships are flourishing. And we have created a cohort of young researchers who refuse to be defined by a single discipline and are able to pitch with great success their research ideas — from basic to applied — directly to industry and government.

So how did we do it?

The establishment phase of a Big Science approach is critical. Chemists, physicists, biologists, engineers and the like are separated not just by their science but by the language they use to describe their work. Breaking down those language barriers took us two years of concentrated effort. This may seem like a long time, but not when you consider scientists have spent a couple of hundred years building up these language barriers.  

The value of a nurturing, non-competitive culture cannot be underestimated. Researchers at universities are like a collection of sole traders all competing for ever scarcer funds. But you can never have a Big Science outcome if you don’t have a team that not only trust one another but fully support each other’s work. We deliberately designed our team and our research strategy to ensure collaboration, not competition. The concept of positive failure is essential to this dynamic. Your team need to know that they can come up with ‘out there’ ideas that spark discussions, not derision.

When CNBP started we had only one researcher in silk. Now over 70% of our researchers are involved in one way or another in silk research that will have a transformative impact on wound care and drug delivery.

This research alone will grow to over $5 million in funding in the next 3 years and has sparked tens of new partnerships. We could not have envisioned this when we started the Centre and it is a direct result of the time we dedicated to understanding the language of each other’s disciplines, as well as building a culture that embraces risk.

Australian scientists have fallen into the expectation that asking funding agencies for money is the first logical step in getting a research project off the ground. We expect our work to be impactful without, in the majority of cases, engaging the suppliers or end users of our hypothetical solutions. Why don’t we start the conversation about the science with the end user and supplier and seek their intellectual and financial capital first? This learned helplessness in the face of acquiring funding needs to be undone. Scientists spend a significant part of their year writing grant applications for amounts that would be seriously dwarfed by what they could achieve if they spent even a fraction of that time engaged with potential industry partners, understanding how they operate and what they need. You can’t go out to engage with industry once and expect a result, you need to approach these relationships as seriously as you would a grant proposal. Building industry relationships takes time, many conversations and a willingness to listen.

You need an articulated and clearly outlined science program that is informed by a strong base of fundamental science, balanced by what your community and industry need as well as an understanding of global opportunity. But you also need one that doesn’t compete with science programs where the USA and China are already strong. Scientists need to find local research opportunities with a unique edge that is entirely Australian and where we can be global leaders.

One such opportunity came about in 2015-17, when our researchers met and talked with livestock producers and red meat processors on several occasions. This allowed our team to develop an understanding of the challenges farmers face, the abattoir processes and the market’s needs. Likewise, the relationship with industry grew as they became familiar with our work and the urgency we had to see our science impact their businesses. Our discussions have translated to a range of measurement technologies that are seeking to provide the industry with a financial return. With uses in measuring meat eating quality and intramuscular fat in abattoirs at line speed through to assessing the density of wool follicles on sheep, the new technologies either replace expensive and laborious techniques or provide a solution to an unresolved industry problem. By employing Big Science to create measurement technologies together with a producer and manufacturer, we have helped farmers reduce costs and created a new product based on fundamental blue sky research.

This deep connection with the agricultural sector and our openness to learn has enabled us to identify a new opportunity to provide the sector with tools, therapies and practices to improve wellbeing and productivity. Through the Cooperative Research Centre for Livestock Wellbeing, we are taking our research expertise across med-tech and chronic pain research into the agricultural sector with our industry, research and policy partners. This is Big Science because it involves many research disciplines coming together with industry and government to solve a critical issue for our farmers and to build a new industry for Australia.

Big Science is critical to the survival of science funding

Australia excels at creating brilliant scientists, but that is no longer enough. Our old metric of ‘bench to bookshelf’, where we are funded on peer-reviewed publishing record alone, will become a thing of the past. Future scientists will need to be able to present their ideas to business, read and write patents applications and negotiate business deals. ‘Bench to boardroom‘ will become the new norm. As mentors, we need to be able to train our young scientists, so we need to get comfortable now with building industry collaborations and support for discovery and applied science.

Government could help facilitate this process right now by providing a scheme at the end of Australian Research Council grants by which industry applications that have been identified can be immediately developed and exploited, rather than their potential being lost.

In Summary

The Big Science approach is how we should be creating our research strategy, educating and training our students, and collaborating with industry and government.

It isn’t a new concept, but its widespread adoption has been slow, to the detriment of funding, research impact, industry collaboration and social capital. Adopting a Big Science model will ensure that funding for basic and applied research flourishes so that the next generation of researchers aren’t faced with dwindling funding and opportunities. It is up to this generation of research leaders to build that future — and I invite you to join me in doing so.