Please, Leave Us Alone!

by Ralf Neumann, Labtimes 01/2017

Ah, what a night! Two fat mice, one juicy squirrel and – the absolute culinary highlight – a real beauty of a noctule bat. Right now, after a deep and long day’s sleep, I can still sense that oh-so special flavour of tender bat meat on the back of my tongue.

Guess why specifically last night’s hunt was so extraordinarily successful. (I mean, in all modesty, besides my superlative hunting abilities). Well, I’m gonna tell you: it’s because I was all alone! No other owl or any other night-hunting bird came anywhere near me for the whole night. There was no-one and nothing distracting me in the slightest – so I could focus one hundred percent on tracking, hunting and killing my prey...

Somehow, I think this hunting success perfectly illustrates, why we owls are perhaps the most convincing loners in the world. In fact, it’s quite obvious: we have become MOST SUCCESSFUL that way! By pure evolution! Obviously, with respect to survival and reproduction, those of our owl ancestors that preferred to hunt their food alone clearly had a selective advantage over their “group-hunting” fellows. The consequence being that, after myriads of generations, the “loners” had completely wiped out the “socials” from the owl populations. Since then, maverickism has been the supreme motto for our lives as owls.

Why am I telling you this here? Okay... Well, with this in mind, now try to imagine any of us owls doing science in a time that is virtually bulldozed by political demands to form research networks, consortia, clusters or whatever this kind of “bulk research” might be called. You may have already guessed that, for me, this kind of organising research is a real horror!

I remember very well when, a long time ago, I actually gave it a try. A huge funding programme had been freshly announced, which suited my major research interest at the time, in fact, very befittingly. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long until I was asked, if I would like to join the efforts to create a certain network initiative in order to apply. And since quite a handsome sum of research money was to be spilled out, I finally agreed.

That was the beginning of a real nightmare. I had to fly to meeting after meeting before we finally sent off the application – and I had to fly again from meeting to meeting after our project had actually received the grant. Days, nights and whole weeks, during which most of the time any one bird was chirping about something supposedly important – and all the other “networkers” were terribly bored. More than a thousand times I must have thought, “Oh holy Phoenix, what an incredible waste of time and energy. And how much I would be able to achieve, if I could just do my very own work, in my dear little home forest right now.”

In the end, I noticed that all those pressures and obligations of being part of a research consortium slowly but surely started killing my research motivation and creativity. No lie! Not only with respect to hunting do we owls definitely achieve the best results when acting alone, but also when doing research. Simply because we cannot escape our nature. Even if the most attractive programmes are luring from somewhere up above.

That was the lesson I finally learned from this… well, more unpleasant episode of my life as a researcher. And I’m sure I don’t actually have to note, how I kissed the whole network “good bye” as soon as its first evaluation came knocking at the door.

Fortunately, that step didn’t cause a problem for me, since I was able to fuel my research from other sources instead, quite easily. Others, however, were not so lucky – as the example of my then friend, Kingfisher, strikingly demonstrates...

Kingfisher had just established a small group of three beaks and was pursuing a very fine little cell biology project, which – as a side branch – also suggested some potential to one day help study certain aspects of rheumatology. Yes, somehow Kingfisher and his two co-birdies were just another example of how research quite often thrives particularly well in small groups.

One night, however, the Avian Research Council announced a big network funding scheme, called – and aimed at – the “Major Common Bird Diseases”. Almost at the same time, the All Birds Science Foundation started a similar collaborative funding activity on “Degenerative Wing and Claw Malfunction” (I know, I know – not exactly a hit topic for you humans…). You can imagine what happened. Despite both clearly being more medical topics, Kingfisher was instantly approached by several “network coordinators” pressing him to join their respective teams. Since, however, he was almost as maverick-ish by nature as me, Kingfisher was not exactly enamoured by those prospects.

“The problem might be that your project is, indeed, widely regarded as rheumatology research,” I told him back then. “And if you’d now apply for research money from some standard funding pot, you might very well be told, ‘Go and apply to those big special initiatives, there is big money for rheumatology research, right now. We, for our part, have to settle for all the other fields that don’t have the pleasure of such luxury funding.’” And, unfortunately, it turned out I was one hundred percent right.

Thus, Kingfisher put his pipettes away, filled out forms, flew to coordination meetings, and, and, and.... In the end, he did indeed become a “participant” in two big and well-funded consortia. But unexpectedly, for everybody, his research from then on went sadly down the drain.

For me, this wasn’t a surprise. At that time, I had already recognised from my own experience that being crammed into a research network can easily kill anybirdy’s creativity. This kind of work structure is simply not in everybirdy’s nature. It might be okay for chickens or ducks (I’ll spare me a comment here!) – but definitely not for the likes of kingfishers and us owls.


Last Changed: 11.02.2017