The New ABCs of Research: Achieving Breakthrough Collaborations, by Ben Shneiderman

Jeremy Singer on a manifesto for maximum impact and insight based on addressing real-world problems in multidisciplinary teams

March 17, 2016
Scientists collaborating in laboratory

Do you cheer or groan at the thought of writing a Pathways to Impact document for your latest grant application? Ben Shneiderman wants us to cheer enthusiastically. We need to jump out of our lofty ivory towers and get down and dirty in the real world. What’s more, we can no longer work in isolation. A team of complementary researchers, in terms of both discipline and disposition, trumps the lonely genius every time.

The author indisputably comes from a computer science background. Even if the reader doesn’t guess this heritage from Shneiderman’s mildly skewed selection of anecdotal examples, it is apparent from his reliance on three-letter acronyms (TLAs). The main TLAs that summarise Shneiderman’s agenda are ABC (applied and basic combined) and SED (science, engineering and design).

ABC means that we can’t ignore the real world. Theory needs to have practical effects. Shneiderman advocates that we begin by thinking about applied problems and use these to generate or refine theoretical concepts. He uneasily skirts round the “narrow focus” of Albert Einstein, who made minimal practical impact in his lifetime but recently hit the headlines again after the discovery of gravitational waves. However, Shneiderman presents several compelling case studies to show that many applied research problems do generate theoretical results subsequently.

SED means that we need to cultivate new friends. Scientists, engineers and designers must “transcend academic disciplines” to work together, blending their experience and skills to tackle major 21st-century challenges. This collaboration comes entirely naturally for human computer interaction researchers such as Shneiderman, but may be less straightforward for pure mathematicians. I imagine that many readers of this book will hail from the scientific and engineering communities, but Shneiderman argues for equal rights for designers, too.

I enjoyed the book’s narrative case studies, which add spice to the otherwise largely didactic text. Some case study examples will be well known (organisations such as Bell Labs) whereas others are more obscure, albeit equally fascinating (individuals such as the multidisciplinary scholar Sebastian Seung). Another fun feature in each chapter is “Skeptics’ Corner”, where Shneiderman in effect plays devil’s advocate to his own arguments. The material is well balanced throughout, and definitely not a diatribe.

As one would expect from a world-leading visualisation researcher, there are plenty of helpful and memorable schematic diagrams. The research ecosystem map is particularly elegant, abstracting the interactions between familiar entities such as “faculty”, “students”, “research papers” and “government”.

There are two target audiences for this book: everyday researchers and influential policymakers. For the lowly researcher, Shneiderman draws from his own career to offer a range of concrete suggestions for implementing effective collaborative projects in highly applied settings. In some sense, this is another self-help book for beleaguered academics struggling to cope in the brave new world of interdisciplinary funding priorities and global grand challenges.

For the second audience, Shneiderman makes the case that applied research should be favoured over fundamental research. To a large degree, I feel that the majority of policymakers have already bought this message in the UK and elsewhere. If Shneiderman is preaching to George Osborne, Research Councils UK or another British funding body, then they are already converted. His eloquent manifesto simply strengthens their entrenched position. Although he opens the stable door a little wider, the interdisciplinary horse bolted a long time ago.

Jeremy Singer is lecturer in computing science, University of Glasgow.

The New ABCs of Research: Achieving Breakthrough Collaborations
By Ben Shneiderman
Oxford University Press, 336pp, £24.99
ISBN 9780198758839
Published 4 February 2016

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