Want to Strengthen American Democracy? The Science of Collaboration Can Help
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?
How Collaborations Between Researchers and Community Leaders Can Help
First consider the feeling of powerlessness. Individual action becomes more powerful when part of a collective. For ordinary citizens, voting and organizing are arguably the two most impactful forms of collective action, and as it turns out there is substantial research on how to increase turnout and how to build powerful civic associations. Collaborations between researchers familiar with that work and organizers and nonprofit leaders familiar with a community's context can be especially impactful.
For example, in 2019, climate organizers with a nonpartisan group in North Carolina worked with a researcher who studies organizing to figure out how to increase volunteer commitment—that is, how to transform volunteers who only attend meetings into leaders who take responsibility for organizing others. Together, they designed strategies that made sense for the local area. Once implemented, these strategies led to a 161% year-over-year increase in commitment. More concretely, dozens of newly empowered volunteers led events to raise awareness of how climate change was impacting the local community and developed relationships with local officials and business owners, all while coming to see themselves as civic leaders. This experience also fed back into the researcher's work, motivating the design of future studies.
Or consider how researchers and local elected officials can collaborate and respond to novel challenges like the coronavirus. For instance, in March 2020, one county in Upstate New York suddenly had to figure out how to provide vital services like internet and health screenings for residents who could no longer visit shuttered county offices. They turned to a researcher who knew about research on mobile vans. Together, they spoke about the benefits and costs of mobile vans in general, and then segued into a more specific conversation about what routings and services would make sense in this specific locale. Their collaboration entailed a few conversations leading up to the county's decision, and in the end the county received helpful information and the researcher learned about new implementation challenges associated with mobile vans.
In April, legislators in another Upstate New York county realized they needed honest, if biting, feedback from local mayors about their response to the pandemic. They collaborated with researchers familiar with survey methodology. County legislators supplied the goals and historical information about fraught county–city relationships, while researchers supplied evidence-based techniques for conducting interviews in delicate contexts. These interviews ultimately revealed mayors' demand for more up-to-date coronavirus information from the county and also more county-led advocacy at the state level.
To be sure, there are many situations in which elected officials' lack of information is not the main hurdle. Rather, they need an incentive to act. Yet this is another situation in which collaborations between university researchers and community leaders focused on evidence-based, context-appropriate approaches to organizing and voter mobilization could produce needed pressure.
This brings me to the third way in which collaborations between researchers and community leaders can strengthen American democracy. They entail diverse people working to develop a common interest by building new connections across lines of difference. This is a core democratic skill that withers in the absence of practice.
In addition to credibility, we've learned that potential collaborators also care about whether others will be responsive to their goals and constraints, understand their point of view, and will be enjoyable to interact with.
The Science of Collaboration
The previous examples have one thing in common: a collaboration actually took place.
Yet that often does not happen. While there are many reasons why collaborations between diverse people should arise we know far less about when they actually do arise.
This is why a science of collaboration centered on inception is essential. Some studies have already revealed new insights. One thing we've learned is that credibility is important, but often not enough. By credibility, I mean that people are more likely to collaborate when they perceive each other to be trustworthy and have useful information or skills to share. Potential collaborators can signal their credibility by, for instance, identifying shared values and mentioning relevant previous experiences. One study finds that policymakers are more interested in collaborating with researchers who will share findings that are timely and locally relevant—that is, the kind that are most useful to them.
In addition to credibility, we've learned that potential collaborators also care about whether others will be responsive to their goals and constraints, understand their point of view, and will be enjoyable to interact with. For instance, potential collaborators can explicitly acknowledge that they know the other person is busy, or start with a question rather than a statement to indicate being interested. One study finds that busy nonprofit leaders are more likely to collaborate with researchers who explicitly state that (a) they are interested in learning about the leaders' expertise, and (b) they will efficiently share what they know. Another study underscores that potential collaborators need to feel like they know how to interact—that is, to feel like they have a "script" for what's appropriate to say during the interaction.
We're also learning that institutions (such as matchmaking organizations) can reduce uncertainty about credibility and relationality, and also help collaborations start off on the right foot. They are a critical avenue for connecting strangers. For instance, brokers can use techniques that increase the likelihood that diverse people feel comfortable sharing what they know, raising concerns, and being responsive to others.
A science of collaboration that centers the inception question is helpful on two levels. First, it provides an evidence base for how to effectively connect diverse people to work together. Second, when applied to university researchers and community leaders, it can produce collaborations that strengthen American democracy. Moreover, these collaborations are easily implemented, especially when informal and beginning as a conversation or two (as in the mobile vans example).
Existing research on the science of collaboration has already yielded actionable insights, yet we still have much to learn. For instance, we need to better understand the latent demand. Interviews that ask a wide variety of community leaders and researchers who have not previously collaborated to talk about why doing so might be helpful would be enlightening. They could also be a useful antidote to the narrative of conflict that often permeates discussions about the role of science in American politics.
In addition, we need to learn more about the downstream consequences of these collaborations, such as whether new networks arise that include colleagues of the initial collaborators. Here, it would be helpful to study the work of brokers – how they introduce people to each other, how much they follow up, and the impact of those decisions.
Ultimately, expanding the evidence base of the science of collaboration, and then directly applying what we learn, will provide important new and actionable avenues for strengthening American democracy.
[Editor's Note: To read other articles in this special magazine issue, visit the beautifully designed e-reader version.]
Martin Taylor was only 32 when he was diagnosed with Parkinson's, a disease that causes tremors, stiff muscles and slow physical movement - symptoms that steadily get worse as time goes on.
“It's horrible having Parkinson's,” says Taylor, a data analyst, now 41. “It limits my ability to be the dad and husband that I want to be in many cruel and debilitating ways.”
Today, more than 10 million people worldwide live with Parkinson's. Most are diagnosed when they're considerably older than Taylor, after age 60. Although recent research has called into question certain aspects of the disease’s origins, Parkinson’s eventually kills the nerve cells in the brain that produce dopamine, a signaling chemical that carries messages around the body to control movement. Many patients have lost 60 to 80 percent of these cells by the time they are diagnosed.
For years, there's been little improvement in the standard treatment. Patients are typically given the drug levodopa, a chemical that's absorbed by the brain’s nerve cells, or neurons, and converted into dopamine. This drug addresses the symptoms but has no impact on the course of the disease as patients continue to lose dopamine producing neurons. Eventually, the treatment stops working effectively.
BlueRock Therapeutics, a cell therapy company based in Massachusetts, is taking a different approach by focusing on the use of stem cells, which can divide into and generate new specialized cells. The company makes the dopamine-producing cells that patients have lost and inserts these cells into patients' brains. “We have a disease with a high unmet need,” says Ahmed Enayetallah, the senior vice president and head of development at BlueRock. “We know [which] cells…are lost to the disease, and we can make them. So it really came together to use stem cells in Parkinson's.”
In a phase 1 research trial announced late last month, patients reported that their symptoms had improved after a year of treatment. Brain scans also showed an increased number of neurons generating dopamine in patients’ brains.
Increases in dopamine signals
The recent phase 1 trial focused on deploying BlueRock’s cell therapy, called bemdaneprocel, to treat 12 patients suffering from Parkinson’s. The team developed the new nerve cells and implanted them into specific locations on each side of the patient's brain through two small holes in the skull made by a neurosurgeon. “We implant cells into the places in the brain where we think they have the potential to reform the neural networks that are lost to Parkinson's disease,” Enayetallah says. The goal is to restore motor function to patients over the long-term.
Five patients were given a relatively low dose of cells while seven got higher doses. Specialized brain scans showed evidence that the transplanted cells had survived, increasing the overall number of dopamine producing cells. The team compared the baseline number of these cells before surgery to the levels one year later. “The scans tell us there is evidence of increased dopamine signals in the part of the brain affected by Parkinson's,” Enayetallah says. “Normally you’d expect the signal to go down in untreated Parkinson’s patients.”
"I think it has a real chance to reverse motor symptoms, essentially replacing a missing part," says Tilo Kunath, a professor of regenerative neurobiology at the University of Edinburgh.
The team also asked patients to use a specific type of home diary to log the times when symptoms were well controlled and when they prevented normal activity. After a year of treatment, patients taking the higher dose reported symptoms were under control for an average of 2.16 hours per day above their baselines. At the smaller dose, these improvements were significantly lower, 0.72 hours per day. The higher-dose patients reported a corresponding decrease in the amount of time when symptoms were uncontrolled, by an average of 1.91 hours, compared to 0.75 hours for the lower dose. The trial was safe, and patients tolerated the year of immunosuppression needed to make sure their bodies could handle the foreign cells.
Claire Bale, the associate director of research at Parkinson's U.K., sees the promise of BlueRock's approach, while noting the need for more research on a possible placebo effect. The trial participants knew they were getting the active treatment, and placebo effects are known to be a potential factor in Parkinson’s research. Even so, “The results indicate that this therapy produces improvements in symptoms for Parkinson's, which is very encouraging,” Bale says.
Tilo Kunath, a professor of regenerative neurobiology at the University of Edinburgh, also finds the results intriguing. “I think it's excellent,” he says. “I think it has a real chance to reverse motor symptoms, essentially replacing a missing part.” However, it could take time for this therapy to become widely available, Kunath says, and patients in the late stages of the disease may not benefit as much. “Data from cell transplantation with fetal tissue in the 1980s and 90s show that cells did not survive well and release dopamine in these [late-stage] patients.”
Searching for the right approach
There's a long history of using cell therapy as a treatment for Parkinson's. About four decades ago, scientists at the University of Lund in Sweden developed a method in which they transferred parts of fetal brain tissue to patients with Parkinson's so that their nerve cells would produce dopamine. Many benefited, and some were able to stop their medication. However, the use of fetal tissue was highly controversial at that time, and the tissues were difficult to obtain. Later trials in the U.S. showed that people benefited only if a significant amount of the tissue was used, and several patients experienced side effects. Eventually, the work lost momentum.
“Like many in the community, I'm aware of the long history of cell therapy,” says Taylor, the patient living with Parkinson's. “They've long had that cure over the horizon.”
In 2000, Lorenz Studer led a team at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Centre, in New York, to find the chemical signals needed to get stem cells to differentiate into cells that release dopamine. Back then, the team managed to make cells that produced some dopamine, but they led to only limited improvements in animals. About a decade later, in 2011, Studer and his team found the specific signals needed to guide embryonic cells to become the right kind of dopamine producing cells. Their experiments in mice, rats and monkeys showed that their implanted cells had a significant impact, restoring lost movement.
Studer then co-founded BlueRock Therapeutics in 2016. Forming the most effective stem cells has been one of the biggest challenges, says Enayetallah, the BlueRock VP. “It's taken a lot of effort and investment to manufacture and make the cells at the right scale under the right conditions.” The team is now using cells that were first isolated in 1998 at the University of Wisconsin, a major advantage because they’re available in a virtually unlimited supply.
Other efforts underway
In the past several years, University of Lund researchers have begun to collaborate with the University of Cambridge on a project to use embryonic stem cells, similar to BlueRock’s approach. They began clinical trials this year.
A company in Japan called Sumitomo is using a different strategy; instead of stem cells from embryos, they’re reprogramming adults' blood or skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells - meaning they can turn into any cell type - and then directing them into dopamine producing neurons. Although Sumitomo started clinical trials earlier than BlueRock, they haven’t yet revealed any results.
“It's a rapidly evolving field,” says Emma Lane, a pharmacologist at the University of Cardiff who researches clinical interventions for Parkinson’s. “But BlueRock’s trial is the first full phase 1 trial to report such positive findings with stem cell based therapies.” The company’s upcoming phase 2 research will be critical to show how effectively the therapy can improve disease symptoms, she added.
The cure over the horizon
BlueRock will continue to look at data from patients in the phase 1 trial to monitor the treatment’s effects over a two-year period. Meanwhile, the team is planning the phase 2 trial with more participants, including a placebo group.
For patients with Parkinson’s like Martin Taylor, the therapy offers some hope, though Taylor recognizes that more research is needed.
“Like many in the community, I'm aware of the long history of cell therapy,” he says. “They've long had that cure over the horizon.” His expectations are somewhat guarded, he says, but, “it's certainly positive to see…movement in the field again.”
"If we can demonstrate what we’re seeing today in a more robust study, that would be great,” Enayetallah says. “At the end of the day, we want to address that unmet need in a field that's been waiting for a long time.”
Story by Freethink
Try burning an iron metal ingot and you’ll have to wait a long time — but grind it into a powder and it will readily burst into flames. That’s how sparklers work: metal dust burning in a beautiful display of light and heat. But could we burn iron for more than fun? Could this simple material become a cheap, clean, carbon-free fuel?
In new experiments — conducted on rockets, in microgravity — Canadian and Dutch researchers are looking at ways of boosting the efficiency of burning iron, with a view to turning this abundant material — the fourth most common in the Earth’s crust, about about 5% of its mass — into an alternative energy source.
Iron as a fuel
Iron is abundantly available and cheap. More importantly, the byproduct of burning iron is rust (iron oxide), a solid material that is easy to collect and recycle. Neither burning iron nor converting its oxide back produces any carbon in the process.
Iron oxide is potentially renewable by reacting with electricity or hydrogen to become iron again.
Iron has a high energy density: it requires almost the same volume as gasoline to produce the same amount of energy. However, iron has poor specific energy: it’s a lot heavier than gas to produce the same amount of energy. (Think of picking up a jug of gasoline, and then imagine trying to pick up a similar sized chunk of iron.) Therefore, its weight is prohibitive for many applications. Burning iron to run a car isn’t very practical if the iron fuel weighs as much as the car itself.
In its powdered form, however, iron offers more promise as a high-density energy carrier or storage system. Iron-burning furnaces could provide direct heat for industry, home heating, or to generate electricity.
Plus, iron oxide is potentially renewable by reacting with electricity or hydrogen to become iron again (as long as you’ve got a source of clean electricity or green hydrogen). When there’s excess electricity available from renewables like solar and wind, for example, rust could be converted back into iron powder, and then burned on demand to release that energy again.
However, these methods of recycling rust are very energy intensive and inefficient, currently, so improvements to the efficiency of burning iron itself may be crucial to making such a circular system viable.
The science of discrete burning
Powdered particles have a high surface area to volume ratio, which means it is easier to ignite them. This is true for metals as well.
Under the right circumstances, powdered iron can burn in a manner known as discrete burning. In its most ideal form, the flame completely consumes one particle before the heat radiating from it combusts other particles in its vicinity. By studying this process, researchers can better understand and model how iron combusts, allowing them to design better iron-burning furnaces.
Discrete burning is difficult to achieve on Earth. Perfect discrete burning requires a specific particle density and oxygen concentration. When the particles are too close and compacted, the fire jumps to neighboring particles before fully consuming a particle, resulting in a more chaotic and less controlled burn.
Presently, the rate at which powdered iron particles burn or how they release heat in different conditions is poorly understood. This hinders the development of technologies to efficiently utilize iron as a large-scale fuel.
Burning metal in microgravity
In April, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched a suborbital “sounding” rocket, carrying three experimental setups. As the rocket traced its parabolic trajectory through the atmosphere, the experiments got a few minutes in free fall, simulating microgravity.
One of the experiments on this mission studied how iron powder burns in the absence of gravity.
In microgravity, particles float in a more uniformly distributed cloud. This allows researchers to model the flow of iron particles and how a flame propagates through a cloud of iron particles in different oxygen concentrations.
Existing fossil fuel power plants could potentially be retrofitted to run on iron fuel.
Insights into how flames propagate through iron powder under different conditions could help design much more efficient iron-burning furnaces.
Clean and carbon-free energy on Earth
Various businesses are looking at ways to incorporate iron fuels into their processes. In particular, it could serve as a cleaner way to supply industrial heat by burning iron to heat water.
For example, Dutch brewery Swinkels Family Brewers, in collaboration with the Eindhoven University of Technology, switched to iron fuel as the heat source to power its brewing process, accounting for 15 million glasses of beer annually. Dutch startup RIFT is running proof-of-concept iron fuel power plants in Helmond and Arnhem.
As researchers continue to improve the efficiency of burning iron, its applicability will extend to other use cases as well. But is the infrastructure in place for this transition?
Often, the transition to new energy sources is slowed by the need to create new infrastructure to utilize them. Fortunately, this isn’t the case with switching from fossil fuels to iron. Since the ideal temperature to burn iron is similar to that for hydrocarbons, existing fossil fuel power plants could potentially be retrofitted to run on iron fuel.