Is collaborative work possible without “kindness in science”?

This interesting and thought-provoking article in Nature about “kindness in science” and a subsequent twitter exchange with colleagues across the world got me thinking. What is kindness in science? Why is kindness in science necessary? And isn’t science all about objectivity? Will being kind hurt or help science?

Popular portrayals of scientists in the media suggest that brilliance is accompanied by an unwavering commitment to truth; a good scientist is honest, if occasionally a tad harsh. I agree for most part. I firmly believe that scientific inquiry requires frankness in questioning claims you don’t understand or agree with. In fact, one of the things I liked most about my current workplace is the culture of open questioning, which stands in sharp contrast to many Indian institutions, which are so hierarchical that absurd statements by a senior scientist may never be challenged publicly by junior researchers, let alone students. Some of this stems from a culture that promotes respect for elders. But I wonder whether the very same culture of respect, also allows unkindness. After all, culture only requires the respect to go one way.

The recent Nature article, based on a Kindness in Science workshop held in New Zealand, that was in turn inspired by an earlier article by Emily Bernhardt, made me think more about what kindness means and whether its a good thing. If we hesitate to call out bad science, then is the whole scientific enterprise doomed? Are we creating a culture of unnecessary political correctness? Can we ensure excellence while still being kind?

Emily’s original article was prompted by instances of unpleasantness by senior scientists towards junior scientists at conferences. She speculates how our day to day lives as scientists would change if everyone was actively trying to be kind — the way grant and paper reviews would be worded differently and the ways the interactions between students and mentors might shift. And many already practice this — Emily acknowledges many instances when colleagues went out of their way to share knowledge and be supportive. Clearly there are nicer, more constructive ways to call out bad science or poor writing. Ultimately science will benefit if our intention is to help rather than belittle.

I really liked the points that Emily and others interviewed in the Nature article make. We need ways to reward kindness to junior colleagues and students because these have “multiplier effects” by causing smart young people to stay motivated and productive. Perhaps promotion/award committees can give more weightage to it. And we should all learn to recognize evidence of absence of kindness. E.g. if you come across a CV that has very few papers lead-authored by students/post-docs/research associates over a two or three decade career, that is a flaming red flag!.

But I want to extend the arguments in the Nature paper. My thesis is as follows: if you engage in interdisciplinary team science (as I do), then kindness is not just desirable, but a critical ingredient of success.

Over the years, I have engaged in many intellectual discussions over philosophy of science and barriers to interdisciplinarity. Yet, I feel that the collegiality aspect isn’t discussed enough. In my opinion, the intellectual aspects of interdisciplinarity are the easiest. Respect and kindness, and the practice of them, are the hardest. This is hard because in team science kindness is not just lack of abuse, but something more subtle and we are never taught how to do it. In interdisciplinary “team science”, groups of scientists from different fields work together on complex problems. This poses all manner of problems that require particular attention to kindness.

First, contempt. If researchers are not trained to speak to colleagues from different fields, what others say may sound like “mumbo-jumbo”. Too often, scientists dismiss what researchers from other disciplines say as as unimportant simply because they do not understand or see the value. This is compounded if they are junior or do not speak English as their first language. Contempt, thinly veiled, is worse than abuse. Kindness is saying “I don’t understand. Can you explain again? or “Let me explain again” and avoiding jargon when its is your turn to explain. Although mandatory training in philosophy of science, epistemology and science communication will help, in the absence of that, kindness is acknowledging that our colleagues are intelligent people; if they don’t understand us, we must be doing a poor job explaining.

Second, self promotion. When collaborative work leads to interesting new insights, its often assumed that senior or better known colleagues have contributed the lion’s share. This is particularly an issue in the case of collaborations between developed and developing country researchers (to be fair I have been extremely fortunate in having awesome foreign collaborators), the developed country researchers may be better connected, have better access to journals, funding opportunities etc. Kindness is acknowledging equal contributions, despite unequal stature and stepping back and creating opportunities for junior colleagues to step into the limelight. Kindness is not treating counterparts from poorer institutions as minions, who collect data or run field stations, but valuing their intellectual contributions and building their capacities to lead.

Third, the zero-sum game mindset. Often, researchers working together take a zero-sum view of publications and funding: if I get first authorship, you cannot, if I get the grant then you won’t. In practice, it is often possible, particularly in large interdisciplinary projects, to publish additional narrow disciplinary or broad synthesis pieces. Often, it is possible to find pots of money for specific tasks such as for equipment, travel grants, publications, outreach or policy that can allow cross-subsidizing. Kindness is “expanding the pie”, so everyone gets more. If one team member gets additional money, they can release some funds from the common pool to help others. Kindness is acknowledging generosity and passing on funding leads that others can benefit from, if we cannot apply ourselves.

Finally, dependencies. This form of unkindness is not easily recognizable because academics are perpetually over-committed (I am guilty myself). In team science, there are often dependencies. If my agent model is dependent on someone else’s household survey data or my hydrology model is dependent on someone else’s mapping or sensor data, then team science implies a level of trust. Too often researchers maximize their private gain, prioritizing their own publications over what needs to be given to colleagues for the synthesis work to be done, at the expense of the productivity of the team as a whole. Kindness is acknowledging that “I understand you are placing your career success in my hands and I won’t let you down”; then making sure you deliver your pieces in time for the others to finish theirs.