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  • Broad, Deep or Both?

    An ambitious project like the Great to Eight Research Agenda needs to grapple with many tensions and potentially opposing issues. One that we’ve been pondering lately is how to leverage both the deep specialised knowledge of experts, and encourage collaboration and creative partnerships.

    The recent review of the Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classifications wrestled with the same topic, asking in its consultation how the ANZSRC could be revised to better classify interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research. From their report:

    “The Review found that there was no viable solution that could be applied to the classification to resolve or avoid this issue.”

    For the purposes of research classification, allowing users to assign multiple codes to research data, or apportion research across multiple codes, was agreed by the consultees to work well enough most of the time. But is assigning value and priority to research questions in the development of a research agenda a different matter?

    There’s some interesting evidence that unorthodox collaborations can unlock tremendous potential. In the 2019 book Range, by David Epstein, the author uses the example of Broadway musicals. He notes that the 1920s featured dozens of productions with famous and talented names, including Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and George Gershwin. Yet the same period saw an unusually high number of flops, up to 90% of new shows. For contrast, he looks at the current smash hit Hamilton, which blends the unlikely ingredients of classical Broadway, hip hop, and American biographical history. The atypical combination of typical forms invigorates the art form and unleashes creativity.

    Sociologist Professor Brian Uzzi of the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, says novel collaborations allow creators “to take ideas that are conventions in one area and bring them into a new area, where they’re suddenly seen as invention”. He describes human creativity as “an import/export business of ideas”.

    Uzzi and his team analysed eighteen million papers from a range of disciplines to find out whether atypical combinations of knowledge made a difference. If a paper cited other areas of research that rarely appeared together, it was deemed to use an atypical knowledge combination. The papers that were most cited over the next ten years featured both conventional knowledge combinations and atypical combinations.

    “The highest-impact science is primarily grounded in exceptionally conventional combinations of prior work yet simultaneously features an intrusion of unusual combinations. Papers of this type were twice as likely to be highly cited works. Novel combinations of prior work are rare, yet teams are 37.7% more likely than solo authors to insert novel combinations into familiar knowledge domains.”1

    Professor Luis A. Nunes Amaral, the co-Director of the Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems, found that ecosystems that foster successful teams have similar characteristics. Individuals move easily between teams, cross organisational and disciplinary boundaries, and find new collaborators2.

    So what does this mean for the ecosystem we hope to build with the Great to Eight research agenda? It means that if we want new and creative solutions for our most entrenched problems, we need to find a way of ensuring that deep subject matter expertise – the “conventional” knowledge – is both allowed and encouraged to cross-pollinate in atypical ways.


    1Atypical Combinations and Scientific Impact, Brian Uzzi, Satyam Mukherjee, Michael Stringer, Ben Jones, Science 25 Oct 2013 : 468-472

    2Team Assembly Mechanisms Determine Collaboration Network Structure and Team Performance, Roger Guimera, Brian Uzzi, Jarret Spiro, Luis A Nunes Amaral, Science 29 Apr 2005 : 697-702