Constructing Interdisciplinary Collaboration: The Oncofertility Consortium as an Emerging Knowledge Commons
Forthcoming in Governing Medical Knowledge Commons (eds. Katherine Strandburg, Brett Frischmann, & Michael Madison, Cambridge University Press, 2017)
40 Pages Posted: 12 Dec 2016
Date Written: December 10, 2016
Sociologists of science and technology have long recognized that the twin forces of specialization and intellectual migration shape the content of scientific and technological knowledge. But while the combination of diverse tools is often a catalyst to innovation, social forces that work to preserve community boundaries can hinder such combination. How, then, do people from distinct practice communities — with different and often conflicting commitments to interpretive frameworks and research tools — come together to define and work on shared problems? This book chapter analyzes the emergence of interdisciplinary collaboration in the Interdisciplinary Research Program Consortia, a National Institutes of Health (NIH) initiative whose goal was to foster an inter-disciplinary approach to research. The chapter focuses on the NIH-funded Oncofertility consortium at Northwestern University.
Through a series of semi-structured interviews, participation in Oncofertility conferences, review of conference video records and primary literature, this case study identifies five features that facilitated collaboration in the Oncofertility consortium. First, a hierarchical, centralized and informal governance structure that was highly successful in large part because its decisions were consonant with and relied upon the underlying social norms of the research and clinical community. Second, the presence of a high status intellectual actor with a high degree of trustworthiness in the eyes of consortia members. Third, a pre-existing social network, which formed the core of the research group. Fourth, monthly face-to-face research meetings among that research core. Fifth, having a relatively closed infrastructure where information and know-how was accessible only to core group members. Open data sharing among the research core was crucial for leaps in creativity. Nevertheless, outside this core group of researchers, the consortium initially adopted a “closed” format — in which protocols, findings and access to expertise were available only to consortium members. A “closed” format appeared necessary to generate buy-in for the initial consortium members. Once the consortium was firmly established, and with a higher degree of institutionalization, the consortium became more open — sharing most of its research findings, protocols and expertise with any interested researcher or clinician. Patents did not play a prominent role in encouraging consortium research. Rather, consortium members used patents as an attributional device: all scientists interviewed valued patents almost exclusively for their ability to receive credit for their inventive contributions.
Three of these features — the importance of a high status intellectual actor, a pre-existing social network, and face-to-face interactions — echo empirical findings in other case studies, providing further evidence that they constitute hallmarks of successful research commons. Future studies of scientific research consortia are needed to establish whether a close/open transition, and a hierarchical but informal governance structure, play important roles in establishing other successful interdisciplinary knowledge commons.
Keywords: Interdisciplinarity, Commons, NIH, Boundary-Crossing, Open Innovation
JEL Classification: K10, K30
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation