Some years ago, after a very congenial dinner, a colleague of mine berated scientists for the many authors’ names which appear on their publications. ‘Surely’, he said, ‘like those of us in the arts, brilliant minds should be able to publish independently – with just a single author’. His remarks made me pause and think. I thought of the history of science and how many great minds have paved the road of progress with their milestone discoveries: Newton with gravity; Lavoisier with oxygen; Darwin with evolution and Einstein with relativity. Their names are endless and their achievements epic. All of them individuals with the stroke of genius on their side.
Then yesterday, I pondered again, as I read the new paper in Nature by Professor Ian Deary – and no less than 19 of his fellow investigators. Nineteen scientists to write a single article? And not just 19 scientists: 5 institutions across two continents. It was certainly a milestone paper. (For those of you who are not academics, ‘Nature’ is the world’s leading scientific journal. Publish in Nature and you are made. No-one can argue with the level of your work).
Ian Deary heads up the ‘Disconnected Mind’, a project investigating why we ‘lose our marbles’ as we get older – more properly called cognitive ageing – a condition which every one of us will face. It is also a complex one of which very little is known and in which there is little funding. But since its inception in 2008, the project has prospered and grown to the point where Ian and his team in Edinburgh were able to publish their findings in Nature, together with their Australian colleagues. A stunning achievement.
And now here is the nub of my argument: science is now so complex and so expensive and the issues it investigates of such magnitude that only partnerships can crack it. Age UK took the bold step to fund this area of science in which there was little progress but which was critical for older people. We backed a winner and won. There followed an avalanche of funding, from the research councils, from Government, from other charities, all of them now convinced of the merits of the case. This funding brought together legions of the best minds who are now generating milestones in our understanding of cognitive decline.
I congratulate the Board of Age UK on their far sighted decision to fund the Disconnected Mind and I congratulate the many scientists it now employs from its multiple sources of income. I have no doubt that the findings they make will revolutionise our thinking and the lives of millions of older people. And when I read their papers with their multiple authors, I shall smile and know that by working together we will make the progress we need and the world a better place.