Metamorphosis of the solitary genius
Dr. Ron McTaggart-Cowan
Research Scientist
Atmospheric Numerical Weather Prediction Research Section
Environment and Climate Change Canada
John Gyakum
Canada Steamship Lines Professor of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences
McGill University

Alone in a dimly lit office, the solitary genius wrestles with the new theory that fills the pages of the notebook. Derivations lead the way, only to be confounded by predictions that fail to align with observational evidence. Closing the door to eliminate distractions, the solitary genius anguishes over the incoherency of the results, and wonders where it all went wrong...

The answer is clear to anyone, genius and non-genius alike, who works in the modern scientific reality: collaboration and teamwork are essential in 21st century research. As our collective understanding of the natural world improves, concepts become increasingly complex and interdisciplinary, while datasets become larger and more comprehensive. The solitary genius has necessarily been replaced by teams of researchers whose combined expertise vastly outmatches that of even the most talented individual.

A natural collaborative connection exists between academic institutions and government research centres, whose scientific goals are aligned but not identical. Academics and students in McGill University’s Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences undertake exploratory research on emerging concepts that may or may not lead to deliverable innovations, an endeavor that is common to academic institutions worldwide.

The researchers at Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) who have been tasked with developing the numerical modelling systems that underpin weather forecasts are more focused on scientific projects that promise to yield improvements in forecast quality. The differences in objectives between the McGill and ECCC teams are complementary and therefore enrich the outcomes of coordinated efforts between the groups.

Over the last decade, McGill and ECCC researchers have collaborated extensively on a broad range of topics within the natural sciences. Process studies, observational efforts and theoretical investigations have informed the development of new conceptual models of intense storms, analyses of the life cycles of potentially harmful pollutants, and investigations of the predictability of high-impact weather events across the country.

New McGill observing systems obtained under the Canadian Foundation for Innovation will expand the scope of these collaborative efforts to include contributions from other domains within the bio-geosciences, always leveraging the collaborative networks that have developed naturally over time.

Scientific interactions between McGill and ECCC form a continuous cycle in which research findings are incorporated into forecasting applications, which are thereafter evaluated through the lens of the original research objectives. This cyclic structure is unique because of the highly visible nature of the research outcomes in the form of forecast improvements. Collaborators evaluate these changes and propose new research projects to ensure that the cycle continues through basic research, operational implementation, and back to basic research. The most successful collaborative projects are those that recognize the mutual benefits that can be realized by this form of iterative scientific progress.

The breadth of domains involved in collaborative research will continue to increase as our understanding of the Earth system evolves. No single researcher can or should attempt to be expert in every aspect of the field, especially as the definition of the discipline expands to reflect the underlying complexity of the problem.

The most successful scientists of the future will be those who are able to synthesize information from a broad array of sources, contributing their share to project objectives while engaging with researchers from diverse academic backgrounds. From foundational studies to applied research and back again, these collaborative efforts will move our science forward in new and exciting ways.

... The solitary genius opens the office door, blinking as sunlight streams in. Colleagues gather around, each contributing unique insights into the new theory. Slightly overwhelmed, the not-so-solitary genius smiles and steps into the new world of collaborative research that awaits.