When physicists want to smash some tiny particles together real hard, they don’t make a mess in their own lab—they take it to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. But what about other scientists? Couldn’t all fields of research benefit from a shared resource like the LHC, or like the large time-share telescopes used by astronomers? These are the kinds of facilities that no one organization could afford to build alone.
Agricultural researchers may soon benefit from a similar collaboration, but with a twist. Instead of a central facility like CERN, they will have access to a distributed network of research stations. Essentially, they will all help each other out. A biologist in the south of Spain could not only test plant samples in local soil but also in sub-zero Swedish soil and in wet Scottish fields.
The project is called ECOFE (European Consortium for Open Field Experimentation) and is currently seeking political support and financing. The plan is for a network of shared research stations across Europe, giving researchers a much more diverse range of conditions for testing. It would also allow a CERN-type approach, with the cost of otherwise prohibitively expensive equipment or installations to be shared amongst members.
"Present field research facilities are aimed at making regional agriculture prosperous," co-author Hartmut Stützel wrote in Trends in Plant Science "To us, it is obvious that the 'challenges' of the 21st century—productivity increase, climate change, and environmental sustainability—will require more advanced research infrastructures covering a wider range of environments."
And collaboration, even done at a distance, could be good for the research in general. In a 2012 paper published in Nature, Jonathan Adams details "the rise of research networks." These networks, says Adams, are a disruptive alternative to the established institutions. Instead of confining research to one university or organization, researchers can collaborate in loosely-formed groups that can vary from project to project.