How Big Collaborative Science is like Making a Movie

Disclaimer. I’m not involved in filmmaking, I’ve never been on a movie set, never even been to Hollywood. But I have watched a lot of DVD special features on making movies.

I am involved in science; big collaborative science as part of several NIH multi-institutional centers. Two systems biology centers funded by the NIAID (Systems Virology and Systems Biology of Enteropathogens) and a proteomics center part of the NCI Clinical Proteomics Tumor Analysis Consortium (CPTAC). I also work at a national laboratory where that’s the idea of how we’re organized- to do big science. So I know something about that.

Some of the worst movies have the best DVD special features. The League of Extraordinary Gentleman was a pretty bad movie, but it had something like four hours of special features on the DVD, all really interesting. Watching special features about making feature-length movies raised some very interesting parallels between big collaborative science and making movies (at least from my limited perspective.)

So first off, here’s how they’re different:

Goal and product: A movie project’s goal is to, big surprise, make a movie. A movie is a discrete chunk of a result. It gets made and released all at once, and there’s only one way to win: did you succeed in getting the movie made? A research project produces multiple different ‘products’-the chief of these is research publications. But these things are produced over time and released in different ways.

Having one end product, a finished movie, is also different. A research project will have many small projects that generally circulate around a set of central guiding hypotheses (that are at a very abstract level). This means that there will be gradations to successfully completing the project.

Evaluation: Bottom line, movies are successful if they make money. And they can be evaluated based on this by simple comparison with other movies. Research projects, because of the diversity of their different possible products, are harder to evaluate. Impact on the scientific community, high-impact publications, data released, etc. To be fair, a movie can be a classic work of art, and highly reviewed by critics, and so a ‘success’, without making a lot of money.

Now how they’re similar:

Funding: This is where I’m the most shaky in terms of making movies but it seems that there’s a funding agency (studio or often other entities) that basically pore over ‘proposals’ (screenplays, ideas, sequels, etc.) and award funding to people (directors) or groups (a director and their team) who they think can get the job done. It’s not unlike some scientific funding mechanisms- though it doesn’t involve the component of peer review, which many scientific funding agencies use. The funding agency is making an investment and they want to see a return on that investment.

Vision: This isn’t always true of big science, but it also isn’t always true of movies: A successful project must have clear and driving vision. Generally this is instituted by a central figure for the project, the PI or the director, depending. The vision isn’t just about the end product but also about how the end product(s) should be achieved. If the vision isn’t there then nothing will get done, or nothing will get done well.  (I guess I’m using this as equivalent to leadership, but it’s not really)

Organization: There are many parts to making a movie, and increasingly in big science, there are many different disciplines that need to come together to pull off a successful project. There have to be teams with different skills and expertise to work on the various parts of the project. So assembling the appropriate team with the right skills, the ability to get things done (critical), and work in a large project, is very important.

Collaboration/communication: So this is probably like many, many other large-scale projects (building a skyscraper, a ship, running a government, etc.) but I like the insight that the “making of” special features afford into this world. Collaboration is key. No one person, or one discipline can make it all work. Sure, the actors and actresses are important to a movie. But without everyone else working as a team and communicating efficiently at multiple levels they are just going to sit around and stare at each other. Making a movie at large scale seems incredibly complicated. So you need people who are specialists in what they do and probably know very little about what the other people do. Then you need people who glue those groups together, both from the top down, like a director, and from inside, like the leads from each team who can interface with other groups.

I really liked a quote I heard on a recent making of, but won’t be able to properly attribute it. It was the stunt coordinator talking about collaboration. He said (paraphrased), “we can both have different ideas of what a tree is. The best way to collaborate sometimes is to each go off and draw a tree and then come back and say, ‘is this what you meant?'” Successful collaboration can lead to great things that neither side thought of to start with and poor collaboration (in some cases no collaboration) can completely sink a project.

In my admittedly limited experience collaboration is the most important component. Of course, without the requisite technical skills in your collaborator you can’t actually collaborate effectively, so there is that, but the process of communication at all levels will determine how successful the project is and how happy everyone is about it.

Closing credits. Why is this comparison useful?

I think the most important takeaway- and one that I really haven’t discussed here- is that big science is substantially different from ‘traditional science’ (that is, individual researchers working on projects in their own labs, more-or-less by themselves). Thinking of the organization of big science projects in broader, more abstract terms actually seems to make them more approachable and understandable. This is in contrast to thinking of big science as traditional science, only with more people. In my experience this seems to lead to the use of big science funds to accomplish several disconnected traditional science projects, and misses the potential that big science offers. Big science projects have very similar parts and interactions as other large-scale projects. So how can ideas from these projects be used to improve how we do big science? That’s an open question but one worth thinking about.



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  1. Pingback: Leading a collaborative scientific paper: My tips on cat herding | The Mad Scientist Confectioner's Club

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