Breaking the Mold on Collaboration

The Stanford Center on Longevity is about building the bridges that enable experts to develop innovative solutions to the problems of an aging population. This is a broad charter that by nature means attacking big problems. The traditional academic model is designed for researchers to delve deeply into often narrow disciplines, making steady and incremental progress, but often in relative isolation from other scientists whose input is also needed to solve the targeted problem. Clearly a different model of academic collaboration is needed when the goal requires progress that is rapid and practical.

“With societies aging at unprecedented speed, there is an urgency to finding solutions for the big, big problems,” says Longevity Center founding director Laura Carstensen, Ph.D.

The Center has developed a unique approach to launching targeted collaborations. We identify key Stanford experts in a range of fields and across disciplines, as well as other world class experts, and we invite them to come together in a two day meeting to define the interdisciplinary research agenda that is required to advance innovative solutions for issues of longevity. Key practitioners in related fields are included, as are potential funders and influential policy makers. We avoid the typical conference talks and instead craft a guided conversation. The agenda is clear and results oriented; discussion is focused around key questions that lead to consensus building and next steps. Products that result from the conference range from the launching of new research programs to briefings for Washington policy makers to funding for faculty research.

Participants are asked not to bring PowerPoint presentations: There are no prepared talks. Although a few charts are used on occasion, the Center’s approach is that freeing conferees of a battery of slides will free them from rote thinking as well. That way, they can then look at problems with fresh eyes. To get the big issues on the table early, researchers begin the dialogue in a pre-conference blog and exchange research papers and links on a Center-hosted website constructed specifically for the conference. By the time the group convenes, the conversation is already underway. The conversation continues and advances at the conference, in directed discussion.

The process does not end when participants go home. Rather, these meetings launch an array of activities designed to bring scientific and technological expertise to bear on society’s most pressing problems.

Meeting themes are in line with the Center’s mission to improve the mind, mobility and financial security of the aging, and to reinvent what it means to grow old in our culture. Recent meetings have focused on osteoarthritis, financial fraud, and the potential role of estrogen in cognitive health. Upcoming topics range from health effects of communities to the physiological effects of long periods of sitting.

“With the convening power Stanford holds,” Carstensen says, “the Stanford Center on Longevity is in the position to bring together the best people, to identify barriers to progress and knock them down.”