Want to Strengthen American Democracy? The Science of Collaboration Can Help

The science of collaboration explores why diverse individuals choose to work together and how to design systems that encourage successful collaborations.

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This article is part of the magazine, "The Future of Science In America: The Election Issue," co-published by LeapsMag, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and GOOD.

American politics has no shortage of ailments. Many do not feel like their voice matters amid the money and influence amassed by corporations and wealthy donors. Many doubt whether elected officials and bureaucrats can or even want to effectively solve problems and respond to citizens' needs. Many feel divided both physically and psychologically, and uncomfortable (if not scared) at the prospect of building new connections across lines of difference.

Strengthening American democracy requires countering these trends. New collaborations between university researchers and community leaders such as elected officials, organizers, and nonprofit directors can help. These collaborations can entail everything from informal exchanges to co-led projects.

But there's a catch. They require that people with diverse forms of knowledge and lived experience, who are often strangers, choose to engage with one another. We know that strangers often remain strangers.

That's why a science of collaboration that centers the inception question is vital: When do diverse individuals choose to work together in the first place? How can we design institutions that encourage beneficial collaborations to arise and thrive? And what outcomes can occur?

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Adam Seth Levine
Adam Seth Levine is the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute Associate Professor of Health Policy and Management in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Many questions pique his interest and excitement. The top ones are: “When do ordinary citizens become engaged in civic and political life, and with what impact?" and “How do diverse people, such as researchers and community leaders, work together to address problems?” He is also the president and co-founder of research4impact, a nonprofit that fosters meaningful collaborations between researchers, practitioners, and policymakers.
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Jamie Rettinger with his now fiance Amie Purnel-Davis, who helped him through the clinical trial.

Photo courtesy of Jamie Rettinger

Jamie Rettinger was still in his thirties when he first noticed a tiny streak of brown running through the thumbnail of his right hand. It slowly grew wider and the skin underneath began to deteriorate before he went to a local dermatologist in 2013. The doctor thought it was a wart and tried scooping it out, treating the affected area for three years before finally removing the nail bed and sending it off to a pathology lab for analysis.

I have some bad news for you; what we removed was a five-millimeter melanoma, a cancerous tumor that often spreads, Jamie recalls being told on his return visit. "I'd never heard of cancer coming through a thumbnail," he says. None of his doctors had ever mentioned it either. "I just thought I was being treated for a wart." But nothing was healing and it continued to bleed.

A few months later a surgeon amputated the top half of his thumb. Lymph node biopsy tested negative for spread of the cancer and when the bandages finally came off, Jamie thought his medical issues were resolved.

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Bob Roehr
Bob Roehr is a biomedical journalist based in Washington, DC. Over the last twenty-five years he has written extensively for The BMJ, Scientific American, PNAS, Proto, and myriad other publications. He is primarily interested in HIV, infectious disease, immunology, and how growing knowledge of the microbiome is changing our understanding of health and disease. He is working on a book about the ways the body can at least partially control HIV and how that has influenced (or not) the search for a treatment and cure.

The larvae of adult black soldier flies can turn food waste into sustainable protein with minimal methane gas emissions.

Photo credit: Amy Dickerson

In Sydney, Australia, in the basement of an inner-city high-rise, lives a mass of unexpected inhabitants: millions of maggots. The insects are far from unwelcome. They are there to feast on the food waste generated by the building's human residents.

Goterra, the start-up that installed the maggots in the building in December, belongs to the rapidly expanding insect agriculture industry, which is experiencing a surge of investment worldwide.

The maggots – the larvae of the black soldier fly – are voracious, unfussy eaters. As adult flies, they don't eat, so the young fatten up swiftly on whatever they can get. Goterra's basement colony can munch through 5 metric tons of waste in a day.

"Maggots are nature's cleaners," says Bob Gordon, Head of Growth at Goterra. "They're a great tool to manage waste streams."

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Kim Thomson
Kim Thomson is an Australian-based freelance journalist. Her writing on music, film, technology and the environment has appeared in The Age, The Australian, The Saturday Paper and elsewhere.