Smarter Together

“I like crossing the imaginary boundaries people set up between different fields—it’s very refreshing,” the mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani told Quanta Magazine after winning the Fields Medal in 2014. With different mathematical tools that may or may not work, “It’s about being optimistic and trying to connect things.”

As we welcome the new year at the Rita Allen Foundation, we too are optimistic about the power of crossing boundaries between different fields—including bringing innovative perspectives to solving complex problems.

Last month saw the beginning of a boundary-crossing effort of particular interest for us, at the intersection of our work to support innovation in both science and civil society. A multidisciplinary committee gathered by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine is synthesizing research across disciplines on effective science communication, looking for questions to direct future research and insights to help people better communicate about science. We are supporting the committee’s work, as well as a related project by Climate Central to extend these findings through original social-science experiments. As I shared with the committee, we are particularly excited by the interdisciplinary nature of this effort. Journalists, psychologists, sociologists, media scholars, educators and scientists all have ideas that can strengthen the relationship between science and civil society. With science a crucial ingredient of solutions to many critical problems, it is essential that we get this right.

It has now been more than five years since the Rita Allen Foundation began to expand the scope of its grant making, with innovation and collaboration as guiding principles—characteristics we look for in the work we support, and foster in our own operations. We seek to root our work in evidence and to contribute to building new knowledge—while recognizing that, as in the scientific process, when questions are answered, new questions arise. In that spirit, I would like to share some insights and examples from our work to support creative connections across boundaries. They are among the ideas spurring our own next questions, and I hope they suggest new lines of inquiry for others working to make progress on complex problems.

Bring together unusual suspects

We at the Rita Allen Foundation and many of those we support are seeing the power of purposefully bringing together people with a diversity of perspectives to think about problems that resist easy answers.

Rita Allen Foundation Scholars—early-career scientists conducting pioneering research on cancer, immunology, neuroscience and pain—are increasingly reaching outside their disciplines, merging their own expertise with that of chemists, physicists and data scientists to tackle multiple dimensions of biological problems. Samara Reck-Peterson, a 2009 Rita Allen Foundation Scholar and a professor of cellular and molecular medicine at the University of California, San Diego, has brought together physicists and biologists to investigate the mechanisms of a protein that helps to move components of cells along molecular highways, known as microtubules. In a 2013 essay, she wrote:

One of the great things about pairing physicists and biologists is that they tend to approach problems from different viewpoints. The physicists tend to first ask “How does it work?,” while the biologists’ first question is often more along the lines of “Why does it matter?” This cultural tension is exciting, because it helps us define problems we might not have recognized working as individuals.

As more lines are blurring, we all need to reconsider who is around our table when we are trying to solve complex problems, seeing beyond boundaries to the unique value diverse voices can bring.

The Harmony Institute is one of several organizations we support with a deep commitment to bringing together a wealth of perspectives, skills and knowledge to make progress in a challenging area. We know that television, films and video games have the power to change minds, including on issues of major social importance. But how? And how can media creators understand and expand their impact? The Harmony Institute brings together researchers and product developers with expertise in neuroscience, engineering, media, data and design to bridge the gap between research on the social impact of media and the practice of creating and assessing public-interest media. A focus on developing projects and prototypes with real-world applications, like StoryPilot, helps the Harmony Institute team to identify and test the most promising approaches.

Invest in communication

The Harmony Institute leads me to another point, which is that those seeking new connections across fields and communities need to pay particular attention to communication. It is easy to get wrapped up in doing without pausing to think about who else might need to know about your work and your area of knowledge—and how to share it effectively. This also reflects the mindset of funders. Through our work with Media Impact Funders (I also serve on their Board), we know that few funders prioritize investment in communication—support for media often comes as an afterthought, rather than part of the initial strategy.

For PopTech, communication is at the heart of a mission to bring together innovators from many fields to create lasting change. PopTech has a knack for fostering unconventional collaborations like PeaceTXT, a successful violence-prevention partnership among organizations with expertise in mobile technology, mapping, public-health research and poverty alleviation. PopTech knew early on that innovators across fields—including scientists—need strong communication skills to spur productive collaborations.

The PopTech Fellows program provides emerging social entrepreneurs and scientific leaders with tools for forging collaborations and creating sustainable impact—with an emphasis on sharing complex work in compelling narratives. Through intensive training, the Fellows learn that effective communication isn’t as magical as it seems—it comes from preparation, strategy and, most of all—practice, practice and more practice. The Fellows are given an opportunity to test what they’ve learned before an influential audience of fellow entrepreneurs, scientists and funders at the PopTech conference—watch this year’s Fellows bring down the house.

Throughout our work we see the importance of taking extra time and effort to capture and share information that may be relevant to others. We encourage, support and create tools that help leverage developing knowledge and allow others to build on it—including a new Harvard Kennedy School case study in which Democracy Works will share the lessons of its growth with aspiring social entrepreneurs; Feedback Labs’ Toolkit, which helps organizations assess and improve their responsiveness to constituents; and our (recently revised) Social Media Toolkit, which leads nonprofits through a process of asking whether and how social media can help advance their most important work.

We also support public-interest media as a means of spreading the knowledge and conversations that create a vital democracy. Among many exciting projects represented by the new grants we recently announced, The Conversation is an ambitious experiment in breaking down barriers to the wealth of knowledge that resides in academia and making it accessible to many more people. First launched in Australia in 2011, The Conversation now has bases in Africa, Europe and North America. It is a growing resource for scholars wishing to share their research and perspectives, as well as for people looking for high-quality, well-informed analysis of complex topics that touch their lives. The stories—free for republication with a Creative Commons license—are both engaging and intellectually rich, easing the way for others to pick up new ideas and apply them to other areas.

What insights and examples would you add to this list? And what questions are you pondering in 2016?