Collaboration network for Santa Fe Complex Systems Summer School 2019. Nodes represent participants and links between nodes indicate collaboration between participants. Both nodes and links are color-coded by academic discipline (Brown et al, PLOS ONE)

When warm weather comes, researchers from around the world gather in Santa Fe for an unusual kind of summer school. For four weeks, experts from disciplines ranging from anthropology to quantum mechanics learn the essentials of complexity science. Along the way, they learn to think and work in new ways and make life-long connections with other researchers. Participants in the SFI Complex Systems Summer School describe it as “life-changing” and “magical.”

Jacqueline Brown, an urban planning expert at McMaster University, is one of those enthusiastic Summer School alums. “It’s one of the top academic experiences of my life,” she says. “Everyone is so passionate and happy to be there, and there are people coming from around the globe. There are very cool opportunities to collaborate with other people you’ve dreamed of studying with.”

Brown became so moved by her experience there that she and four other alums — Dakota Murray, Kyle Furlong, Emily Coco, and Fabian Dablander — decided to study what makes collaboration at the Complex Systems Summer School so successful. “We were having a really magical experience,” says Brown. “We wanted to study what happens when you put all these people — biologists, physicists, computer scientists — together.”

The resulting analysis, published in the journal PLOS One in February, took a close look at collaboration among a total of 823 participants who attended Summer Schools from 2005 to 2019. The team found that the groups were diverse in terms of gender, career position, institution prestige, and country.

“There were no preferences for gender, or people studying at universities at the same level of prestige,” Brown says, adding that finding such diversity is unusual in other collaboration studies. “It puts participants on the same playing field. Everyone is a full participant in the project.”

But when the team looked at project topics, they found that the social and behavioral sciences were over-represented and that math, physics, and engineering were under-represented. They recommended further research to explore what’s behind those preferences and how to ensure that project topics are just as diverse as the groups working on them.

Carrie Cowan, SFI’s Director for Education, says she was heartened to see that the school is achieving its goal of creating a collaborative, inspiring culture that attracts people from a variety of backgrounds and professional interests. She hopes SFI can use the findings, along with previous SFI research on the science of science, to further improve the school. “We get a lot of anecdotal evidence that it’s transformative,” says Cowan. “But in addition to that, it’s nice to have something quantitative that says, ‘this is what’s happening.’ We’ll certainly consider their findings in terms of trying to encourage even more trans-disciplinary roots.”

Read the paper, “A breeding pool of ideas: Analyzing interdisciplinary collaborations at the Complex Systems Summer School” in PLOS ONE (February 1, 2021)