By Joern Fischer
As researchers, we live in a highly connected world. Many colleagues work on things that are related somehow to what we do. Conventional wisdom has it that we ought to keep up with Table of Contents, with conferences, and with funding calls, so that we know what’s going on elsewhere. Moreover, early career researchers are told frequently about the importance of “networking”. You’ve got to know who-is-who and who-does-what to effectively position yourself for a research career. To be part of the next “big thing”, you have to be known to those people centrally involved in that “big thing” (e.g. a new funding call, or some other kind of research collaboration).
Through this kind of logic, powerful research networks have formed around many issues. So, for example, there are scholars interested in “resilience stuff”, others interested in “pollination stuff”, others interested in “Amazon stuff”, and yet others interested in “novel ecosystems stuff”. These people tend to know about one another, and for a junior researcher it can be quite important to identify with one of these networks and somehow “get into it”. Once you’re in, you’re well networked, and you’re likely to be swept along by the “next big thing” when it comes around. Or in other words, your career benefits, because through such networks you build a certain kind of resilience into your personal career strategy.
So far, this is fairly conventional logic, and is probably largely “true”, or sensible enough anyway.
But I would argue that there are significant downsides to all this. My argument is that such networks encourage innovation to a point, but then actually stifle innovation; via a mechanism of too much connectedness in a network leading to reduced resilience and poor ability to innovate. This logic is consistent with the adaptive cycle, put forward by resilience scholars (most famously, but not only, by Buzz Holling).
My argument goes like this. As you are more and more networked as an individual scholar, you are able to share ideas with colleagues who have similar interests. You can learn from these colleagues, and that, in turn, will foster innovation. This is conventional wisdom and is consistent with why we ought to go to conferences, read other people’s work, and so on. But eventually, high connectedness can stifle innovation via two mechanisms. The first of these is “group think”. I have heard people outside the “resilience” group, for example, criticize that group for such group think, and I have heard the same kind of criticism of the “pollination” group. Basically, these are large groups of people, where individuals influence one another through personal contact or reading one another’s work, and so if one idea starts to be “sexy”, very soon many others will follow that idea. Topics that take off as a result of this have a lot of traction, because they can draw on large peer communities interested in the same thing. That is, there are major institutional rewards of “imitating” other people’s ideas like this (high citation rates, publications in big journals, etc). But the moments of true innovation are often quite scarce. Arguably, at any given point in time, many people in big networks “go with the flow”, while very few provide truly interesting, new ideas (I’m not implying it’s always the same few people!).
The second mechanism, which further intensifies this dampening of innovation, is known to many of us who are highly connected: a flood of small, often trivial tasks, to maintain one’s status in a given network. This includes floods of emails, grants one is asked to participate in but doesn’t really have time for, frequent travel, and so on. Many of these activities are not good for innovation, but they are the result of responsibilities towards one’s networks. Ultimately, highly networked individuals are extremely busy “serving” their networks. While that’s fine, in principle, it takes away a lot of time, space and freedom for truly creative thought. Where would a highly networked individual therefore have the best ideas? Somewhere in the field, on her own? Or at a conference, surrounded by many individuals? For myself, I know it’s when I’m left alone to reflect, not when I frantically try to keep up with emails, tables of contents, or grant proposals.
So bottom line for me: being networked is good – to a point. Once you feel you are “networked enough”, you’ll have certain duties towards your peers (that’s fine), but it’s equally important to allow oneself to also “disconnect” from such networks, sporadically or even regularly. True innovation, most likely, will come from impulses from outside the network, including quiet reflection away from the busy existence of everyday life.