Make hay while the sun shines

The best known secret for successful collaborations with computational biologists

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Computational biology enables and often drives biomedical research. The contribution of computational researchers may involve “routine” data analysis for supporting fundamental research, techniques for generating and testing complex biological hypotheses, and approaches to diagnosing diseases or guiding their treatment.

The journal Cell Systems recently asked 15 top researchers: “What Is the Key Best Practice for Collaborating with a Computational Biologist?” Answers to this question are crucial because biomedical research significantly relies on inter-disciplinary cooperation.

Although all of the interviewed researchers provided a good variety of insightful and practical advice, a unifying recommendation stood out: Get computational biologists involved in your research as early as possible. Moreover, it is necessary to maintain continuous, evolving interactions.

The benefits of this approach are numerous, among them:

Sound research.  Early and iterative interactions with computational researchers allow the selection of suitable methodologies for generating and analyzing data. This also depends on a solid understanding of the scientific question being addressed, the limitations of existing experimental and computational techniques, and the expectations of the different research stakeholders.

Trust building. Frequent interactions based on openness and mutual respect facilitate the development of sustainable relations. This in turn creates the conditions for research environments where collaborators feel welcome to ask questions, try out new ideas and fail if necessary.

Unexpected, exciting journeys. Bringing computational researchers to the early stages of biomedical research may offer new, unanticipated ways to look at problems. Recurrent conversations may not only enrich the generation of ideas for designing and conducting a study, but also it may result in the re-framing of questions and identification of innovative applications.

Value for money. Many projects crash or waste financial resources because they begin with the generation of incorrect, highly-noisy or insufficient data for a particular type of analysis. Without the early involvement of computational researchers, opportunities for the optimal use of technologies in specific research contexts may also be missed.

These benefits can be fully realized through a strong commitment to life-long learning, a passion for tackling complex problems and the necessary doses of intellectual humility.

The take-outs from “What Is the Key Best Practice for Collaborating with a Computational Biologist?” should also be applied by computational researchers. For example, if you have an idea for a new algorithm or software application, try to obtain the input from biologists or clinical researchers as early as possible. As above, this may lead to tangible benefits in the short and longer terms, and at least new learning opportunities will arise.

These are exciting and challenging times for biomedical research. There is no time for outdated science management styles and marinated egos. If researchers do not make the most of the collaboration opportunities available, they risk missing bigger future opportunities for the benefit of society.

The vanishing civility*

* The game of jerks, bozos and assholes

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Respect, decorum and civility are not only disappearing from the political discourse. It is not just about the incessant demonization of immigrants, criminalization of dissenting views and assaults on reason.  It is also about the public and private interactions among workers of the so-called “knowledge economies”, which include scientists and entrepreneurs (or their wannabes).

Robert Sutton’s The No Asshole Rule defines the “Dirty Dozen”, a top-12 list of everyday actions that toxic, abusive workers exercise. It ranges from personal insults and threats (verbal and nonverbal) to “status slaps” and public shaming. I would also add various creative uses of passive aggression, distortions of reality, bullshitting tactics and shameless lies thrown in your face or behind your back. You also have those individuals who are “not rude” but keep telling people to “suck it up”, to get “their act together” or to believe that disrespect is just a question of interpretation.

This type of behavior is not only inappropriate and unfortunate. It can have negative consequences on individuals, organizations and societies. It is not only about ignoring rights and dignity, which should greatly matter anyway, but also about destroying trust and productivity. This “way of life” can be witnessed in physical and more virtual settings, including emails, discussion forums and social media.

A polite asshole is still an asshole

Civility is more than being polite. I have encountered a good number of “polite” and smiling fools, who have mastered an astounding capacity for incivility. Politeness can be manipulated to befriend the hypocrite and the conceited, who repeatedly destroy and vilify.

Civility means bringing discussion of problems to a ground where people emphasize arguments and the evidence to support or refute the arguments. I remember a particularly poisonous character who, when confronted with critical views of his actions, replied with statements such as “she said that because she is a woman” or “I do it because I am in charge”.  There are also those who exploit “friendly” appearances to backstab you and get away with it because of their status in the “authority” or ass-kissing heap.  What about those who condescend behind a mask of politeness?

Civility also requires (and benefits from) conversations that are based on facts or reproducible observations. Because of this, civility can enrich efforts to resolve conflicts or tough disagreements. Civility is also about making people feel safe in their work environments. Environments where privacy, diversity of ideas and fairness are more than corporate soundbites. Civility can also involve strong, argumentative and even witty deliberation, without having to recur to veiled threats. Civility also flourishes in organizations with a zero-tolerance to unfounded accusations, exaggerated claims and disregard for people’s basic needs.

 “This aggression will not stand, man”. The Dude in The Big Lebowski.

Disagreement and debate, and even a good dose of confrontation, are crucial in public discourse, especially that engaging scientists and potential innovators. However, this does not mean that we should accept incivility as a natural consequence of modern times, or that there is little we can do about it. This is actually too important to let a few noxious people to hijack public or more circumscribed interactions for their selfish gains.

Now, more than ever, there is a need to stand up to jerks and other self-centered dunces. This must be done in firm and rational ways.  I recently witnessed a good example of how to do it well.

A colleague of mine stood up to an instance of abusive (email-driven) behavior directed to a third person, and his response displayed features that are worth highlighting:

  1. Straight to the point. My colleague clearly and succinctly explained why an inappropriate behavior occurred and what motivated him to respond.
  2. Do not lose your cool. My colleague did not use expressions that could be interpreted as ill-mannered or derogatory.
  3. Separate people from the problem. My colleague’s response focused on the fact that a behavior was uncivil, without shaming or attacking the person behind the behavior.
  4. Reduce escalation. Although my colleague was quick and firm in his response, he made it clear (in words and with actual actions) that he did not intend to further add to the exchange. Moreover, he avoided threats or expressions of provocation.
  5. You are a decent person. You speak out because it is the right thing to do for the good of your community.

We cannot let incivility tear us apart. Incivility is in the road to destruction. We have had enough of that.

– I thank Alayne Smith for comments on an early draft.