Summer 2012

Cultivating Our Research Agenda

Harris BermanMedical schools, like people, need to take a good, long look at themselves from time to time to get a handle on their strengths and weaknesses. When conducted honestly, the self-appraisal can be full of revelations about the best ways to move forward and turn new corners in our private and collective lives. What have we done well? And how might we reshuffle the cards in our deck to gain an edge?

I’ve been thinking along these lines recently because of the charged historic moment we occupy in terms of biomedical research. Limited resources and a general climate of uncertainty with regard to government funding mean that our medical school is under increasing pressure to pick our research targets wisely. We must invest carefully and build on our proven strengths to be prepared for the world that awaits us 10 to 15 years down the line.

At our faculty retreat in mid-March, we discussed some dramatic implications of the challenges we face. I urged those present to set individual and departmental concerns aside and try to think about Tufts more broadly, as a place made up of a wealth of interacting parts.

Our organizational model may well need changing. A recent position paper from MIT on trends in research argues that “convergence,” by which the authors mean the knitting together of physical sciences, engineering and life sciences, is the most effective blueprint for addressing the health-care challenges of the 21st century. The authors describe convergence as the “third revolution” in biomedicine, following earlier landmark advances—notably, using molecular and cellular biology to understand disease, and the mapping of the human genome.

In a recent New Yorker article (“Groupthink,” January 30, 2012), Jonah Lehrer traces our national history of thinking about creativity. It used to be that genius came in the form of brilliant individuals such as Einstein or Darwin. But creativity has increasingly become a group process. As researchers have become more and more specialized, the need for collaboration has grown accordingly.

Physical proximity seems to play a big role in forging an effective approach. Lehrer’s article quotes a recent study that examined the relationship between the proximity of researchers to the quality of their research and found that when coauthors had offices that were physically close, their papers tended to be of significantly higher quality. “If you want people to work together effectively,” the study author concluded, “these findings reinforce the need to create architectures that support frequent, physical, spontaneous interactions.”

Speaking of accidents, Building 20 at MIT, cited by Lehrer in his article, was just that—in the best way imaginable. A rambling, three-story barracks-like structure erected hastily on campus during World War II, the site became famous for its poor ventilation, dim hallways and leaky roof. It was full of people who had been thrown together by chance. The internal layout was so confusing that even long-term residents were constantly getting lost as they wandered the corridors, having unexpected conversations and taking on fresh perspectives as they went.

The urban theorist Jane Jacobs had a great expression for these small, unsought conversations. She called them “knowledge spillovers.”

By the time of its demolition in 1998, Building 20 had become a legendary space for innovation, widely regarded as one of the world’s most creative spaces. Military radar, Chomskyan linguistics, an understanding of the physics behind microwaves and the first atomic clock all came from there.

The point for us is not to build decrepit spaces, or to create chaos, but to find new physical arrangements and to cultivate new ways of thinking for the job that lies ahead. You could say we want more knowledge spillovers occurring on our campus. In his article, Jonah Lehrer makes a compelling case for enacting such a change. “The most creative spaces are those which hurl us together,” he writes. “It is the human friction that makes the sparks.”

Harris A. Berman, M.D., is the dean of Tufts University School of Medicine.

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