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  • NATURE CAREERS PODCAST

Communities, COVID and credit: the state of science collaborations

A group of scientists is standing in a laboratory.

Credit: Hinterhaus Productions/Getty

Listen to our collaboration special, with Benjamin Thompson and David Payne.

This week, Nature has a special issue on collaborations, looking at the benefits to science and society that working together can bring. In this collaboration-themed episode (produced jointly with the Nature Podcast and Working Scientist podcast teams), we discuss the issue, and the state of research collaborations in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In this episode:

02:49 How are research collaborations changing?

To answer the biggest questions, research teams are coming together in larger numbers than ever before. But the scientific enterprise hasn’t been set up to support or reward team efforts. We look at how funding systems and methods for giving research-credit need to adapt, to match the reality of modern science.

Feature: How the COVID pandemic is changing global science collaborations

Careers Feature: The authorship rows that sour scientific collaborations

Careers Feature: ‘We need to talk’: ways to prevent collaborations breaking down

16:45 Community-research collaborations

In order to do research that can help communities, scientists need to develop relationships with community members. Creating these bonds can be fraught with difficulty, so we examine how to make them work using the example of Flint, Michigan in the US.

Comment: Community–academic partnerships helped Flint through its water crisis

Nature Video: China and the UK: Making an international collaboration work

Take Nature’s 2021 International Salary and Job Satisfaction Survey

Never miss an episode: subscribe to the Working Scientist podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast app.

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-01652-1

Transcript

Listen to our collaboration special, with Benjamin Thompson and David Payne.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Welcome back to the Nature Podcast. This week, it’s a collaboration special. I’m Benjamin Thompson.

[Jingle]

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Nature has a special focus on collaboration this week and we’re following suit here on the podcast. One of the architects of this endeavour is David Payne, managing editor of careers and supplements here at Nature and sometimes host of Working Scientist, the Nature Careers podcast. And today, David is my co-host. David, hi.

Host: David Payne

Hi, Ben. Delighted to be here.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, David, today is a collaboration podcast about collaborations, which I guess is maybe a little bit meta, but maybe you can tell us why is Nature focusing on collaborations now?

Host: David Payne

It’s a very good question actually, Ben. I mean, I think the impetus for this special obviously has been the amazing, extraordinary, challenging year that we’ve all had. COVID has dominated everything. There have been lockdowns. There have been challenges. There’s been obviously an urgency to find a vaccine, and some really interesting new ways for scientists to work together, and before that there was lots of work done around the research culture and how that needed to change. So, it just felt that the timing was absolutely perfect to really look at the topic.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

And in terms of the topic, of course, the word ‘collaboration’ can mean a bunch of different things.

Host: David Payne

Yeah, I mean, collaborations are a hugely broad church. You have obviously collaborations within disciplines, you have collaborations across institutions, you have collaborations across countries, and the other thing that I’m really delighted that we’re covering in the special this week is we’re also looking at collaborations involving members of local communities. We really wanted this special to bring together all the lessons learned, learnings for the future, and just really to celebrate some of the great collaborations that are happening across science.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

And give us a flavour of what we can expect in this special then, David.

Host: David Payne

So, we’ve got lots of stuff. We’ve got case studies of fantastic collaborations. We’ve got some dives into the data to look at collaborative trends, and we’re focusing a little bit more on kind of the downside of collaborations, really. What happens when a partnership fails for whatever reason and how you can move on from that and learn from it and just basically get a research collaboration back on track.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, plenty in there clearly, but let’s crack on with this week’s podcast and first up, reporter Julie Gould has been looking at why research collaborations are so important and seeing how they’re changing.

Interviewer: Julie Gould

It’s rare to see humans trying to solve large-scale problems on their own. Families work together, communities work together, nations work together. It may not be perfectly harmonious all the time, but it’s how we roll, and science is no different. Collaborations now form the backbone of science, says Martin Gargiulo, a sociologist from INSEAD business school in Singapore.

Interviewee: Martin Gargiulo

The main reason why collaboration is important in academia is that nobody knows everything. Some people may be better at one aspect of the research. Others may be better at other aspects. When you’re thinking about research that requires specific assets, you might have a lab, I don’t. You may have certain machinery that is required to do the experiments that I want to do and I don’t. You may have a dataset that is important and I don’t, and so on.

Interviewer: Julie Gould

The nature of scientific collaboration is changing, with larger and larger groups coming together, something that Nevan Krogan, a molecular and systems biologist from the Quantitative Biosciences Institute at the University of California, San Francisco, says is vital for tackling global issues.

Interviewee: Nevan Krogan

The problems that now we’re focused on, in my mind, can only be solved by groups of scientists around the world, with not just different approaches but different ways of looking at things as well.

Interviewer: Julie Gould

But the research enterprise hasn’t been set up to always support or reward team efforts. Yet large-scale collaborations are showing to be effective. Huge international efforts were made to be build and use the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, and the COVID-19 pandemic has brought together many stakeholders in many countries to find a way to help humanity. Nevan Krogan and Jacqueline Fabius, also from the Quantitative Biosciences Institute, leveraged many of their existing networks and bought in more when working on protein interactions and other features of the virus.

Interviewee: Jacqueline Fabius

So, if we keep having incredible results as large groups, such as we’ve had with the SARS-CoV-2 group – one of our papers had over 200 authors – if we keep having incredible success, it’s very hard to debate that it’s not a better direction to go in. It doesn’t have to be the only direction but it has to be one of the directions, so I think it’s just about critical mass and eventually the proof is in the pudding.

Interviewee: Nevan Krogan

Well, in the pudding in that case, the paper that Jacqueline alluded to that has 200 authors, that took maybe five months, and normally a work such as that would take five, six, seven years.

Interviewer: Julie Gould

But as the nature of collaborations continues to change, this means the way the projects are funded does too. For Trudie Lang, a global health researcher from the University of Oxford, this has meant that the funding agencies have had to fund collaborative efforts rather than a sole researcher or sole group.

Interviewee: Trudie Lang

There’s definitely a discussion, a drive within funding organisations to make this shift, and that’s something I think that should be equally well received by the scientists. I mean, we have to take that on too, and I’m really hoping that our next awards are completely fair, federated partnerships where it’s not one of us taking the lead, it’s between maybe four or five of us or even more. And as scientists, we need to see that by standing together in a team rather than one person getting all the reward, we’ll all do better.

Interviewer: Julie Gould

Standing together as a team also means being rewarded as a team. Researchers’ careers are driven by what and where they publish, but often not everyone is rewarded fairly for their contributions.

Interviewee: Trudie Lang

Too often, the lead investigator is still somebody from the global north, and even though the research happens in the south, most of the heavy lifting, thinking, running of the study happens in the global south, it is still too normal that it’s a western researcher that is the lead PI and the lead author on the papers. And I think to really turn that around we should probably change the model of having one key person that’s one, leading the grant and two, the lead author concept on papers.

Interviewer: Julie Gould

So, to make sure that everyone gets credit where it’s due, Trudie suggests giving everyone equal opportunity to contribute to a project.

Interviewee: Trudie Lang

If there’s a really big clinical trial going on that’s being run typically by someone in the global north – it’s their projects – you can weave in other studies too. So, there could be some social science studies, some health economics, a laboratory component, and that’s a great opportunity for a local researcher to really get a little bit of funding maybe to do that project. Lead investigators, they’ve got this massive grant, they’re going to get their wonderful paper, then they’ve got some responsibility too to look at the team that’s doing the work and see where they can let those teams flourish and shine and find some opportunities to let them grow. And then other times it’s by carving it up in the first place. If someone’s putting in one big grant application, put in several or push your local country partners to put the grants in their name and you step back and be a co-applicant and not a lead applicant. There’s no incentive for doing that. That’s got to be a pretty much a completely philanthropic step to do that because you’re not bringing money into your university and you’re not taking the reward for it, but there’s many a time when that’s the right thing to do.

Interviewer: Julie Gould

Of course, not all collaborations are large ones. Even in small collaborations, it’s important to give credit where it’s due, says Martin Gargiulo. He suggests that it’s worth having a discussion about authorship, for example, at the very beginning of a partnership, particularly when you’re the more junior collaborator. Now, this isn’t going to be an easy conversation but it is an important learning opportunity.

Interviewee: Martin Gargiulo

I think one way to approach that in my field – it may be completely different because there are different norms in other fields – is to say, ‘Look, this idea is very important to me so I would like, if possible, to be the first author.’ And then you’re going to learn a lot because you’re going to learn whether you’re dealing with somebody who is somebody you want as a research partner, okay. The right answer in that kind of case is, ‘Of course,’ right? Maybe some people don’t do that, okay, and I know some people don’t do that. But then I advise my students, well, if you find that, I mean, just find a different co-author.

Interviewer: Julie Gould

But how do you know when a collaboration isn’t working?

Interviewee: Martin Gargiulo

When you realise that every meeting is a drag, that every duration is a drag, that you don’t see eye to eye with your co-author, that your co-author doesn’t live up to their promises or she or he doesn’t have anything to contribute and you’re doing all the work. So, ideally, you move out early, but either you need to finish this relationship, you need to finish this paper but then don’t get into a new one, or you need to say, ‘Look, I’m done. I’m out. You finish on your own.’ It’s easier said than done. That may be the difference between making tenure or not, right.

Interviewer: Julie Gould

Although this is the reality for many researchers, it’s not an ideal one, and an ideal world is not likely to happen anytime soon. However, after this pandemic is over, there are going to be many opportunities for the academic system to rethink its operating system, says Nevan Krogan.

Interviewee: Nevan Krogan

If we’re ever going to have change, now is the time. It’s almost like we’ve got a clean slate coming out of this pandemic. Let’s make the changes that so many people want to see, and we can point to all of the successes that have happened over the past year and a half. And I think scientists around the world are actually pushing in this direction and the big question is can we make that change that I think is so sorely needed in the scientific world?

Host: Benjamin Thompson

That was Nevan Krogan ending that report from Julie Gould. So, David, a lot in there to discuss certainly, and maybe we should start with the nature of how collaborations are changing.

Host: David Payne

I think social media is playing a very big part here, so researchers are searching each other out and they’re networking virtually. I think there’s been a huge surge in interest in multi-disciplinary, inter-disciplinary collaborations. So, I think the whole landscape of collaborations is changing and also the way that the various partners in these collaborations are being credited. One thing that we’re also looking at in the special issue is some of the systemic changes that need to happen within science. So, some of the conferences that I’ve been to, to help inform the direction of the special, have talked about a move away from the superstar PI – somebody who tends to dominate a collaboration – and how actually the ecosystem of research can change so that individual contributions, collective contributions, are recognised.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, that’s something else that Julie looked at. What’s been done to kind of address this?

Host: David Payne

A couple of things spring to mind there, Ben. I mean, one thing I would point out was when Wellcome kicked off the research culture exercise that that they were doing. So, they’re taking a very hard look at actually how the whole funding ecosystem works and how, right at the beginning of a grant application, people can very much more record who is going to be involved in a collaboration and who is going to get the credit there. And the second thing I’d point out is the attempts that publishers are making. A system that springs to mind is the contributor roles taxonomy, which is a much more respectful and systematic way of recording the different contributions that a collaborator is going to make. And I think kind the kind of seriousness of this was demonstrated when we were working on the careers feature which looks at why authorship disputes happen and collaborations break down because we talked to many, many people as part of that, and so few are willing or were able to go on the record because they were really worried that if they talked about an authorship dispute with a particular research group that it was going to have career ramifications for them, that they would be seen as someone who isn’t collegiate, who isn’t respectful of team culture, when at the end of the day they were just articulating a concern that they worked particularly hard on a research question and at the end of the day they didn’t see their name in the author list. What can you do about a research paper? You need to have a lead author, you need to have a corresponding author, you need to recognise the person that drove that collaboration, that actually had all the funding conversations at the very, very beginning of it. It’s a really, really difficult one to crack. I just think the important thing is that people are now talking about it and I would hope that if we looked at this issue in a couple of years’ time, that science and the whole research enterprise would have moved on a little bit and we can have those more courageous conversations.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, are there any examples of how researchers are trying to get ahead of these issues maybe before they arise?

Host: David Payne

Actually, one thing that’s been very much talked about, I mean, I love this term, the idea of a ‘scientific prenup’. It’s this idea of getting people around a table at the very beginning of a collaboration, not making any assumptions about who is going to do what and how they’re going to be recognised, but actually sitting down and working out what will the author list be in the collaboration. How will we on the ground work together, often in very difficult circumstances, often with the clock ticking because we want to achieve something by a certain date? So, just trying to forge out a more respectful dialogue between the various parties in a collaboration, and actually as part of that to manage expectations. I mean, I think, certainly some of the early career researchers that contributed to the piece we’ve got on authorship disputes, I think entered into their collaboration thinking they may have been given more credit than they ended up getting. So, of course, they need tools to help them address that and to assert more effectively. But at the end of the day also, if the data that they’d gathered at the beginning of the process wasn’t ultimately used, actually they need to realise that the landscape may have changed during the course of that collaboration, which is why they won’t get sort of star billing. So, as ever, the solution to everything seems to be communication and actually getting those nuts and bolts worked out right at the very beginning of the collaboration seems to be much more recognised now than it was.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

I mean, I think we’ve really been focusing here on when scientists are collaborating with other scientists but of course in the research enterprise there are so many more sorts of collaboration than just that.

Host: David Payne

Absolutely, and I think one strength of this special is that we do really focus on those fantastic examples where researchers collaborate with non-researchers to frame a particular research question, to work on papers, to solve a local public health challenge. The picture story we have is of a collaboration in Papua New Guinea where a scientist is working with a local village guide to track ant populations in a local rainforest. We have examples of coproduction of research where researchers team up with patients and patients are very much involved in the research question and making sure that the paper delivers for them as well. What I love about some of these stories is the candour, actually. There are some really, really frank acknowledgements that often these collaborations tend to start with just a bunch of scientists sitting around a table, and very quickly they realise that actually that is not going to address the question that they want answering. So, you do see these acknowledgements that getting other stakeholders involved in the data gathering, framing of the research question, actually addressing future collaborations that could happen, so we’re talking about local communities getting involved. I would say this is a great showcase of all the different collaborations that can happen and the fantastic achievements that can be made.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, David, you talk about how researchers and local community members can come together to address challenges, and that’s very much the focus of our next package, where report Nick Petrić Howe has been talking to some folk from the city of Flint, Michigan in the USA.

Interviewer: Nick Petrić Howe

The city of Flint, Michigan is nowadays probably best known for the water crisis that began in 2014.

Interviewee: Rick Sadler

Water was coming out yellow and brown from faucets. I, myself, drank water a few times and it was like it would pretty instantly give you a stomach ache.

Interviewee: E. Yvonne Lewis

Immediately you could see the discolouration in the water or you could smell the odours in the water and the film on the water.

Interviewer: Nick Petrić Howe

The reason why the water had become so obviously bad was due to a cost-cutting decision to change the supply of water from Lake Huron to the Flint River. A seemingly simple decision to cut costs had devastating consequences for the population of Flint. In addition to the contaminants discolouring the water, it also contained a toxic amount of lead from the city’s ageing pipe network. While at first officials denied that the water was unsafe, several groups of researchers documented the extent of the contamination in the water, eventually causing the authorities to concede that there was a problem. After more than a year of contaminated water, the water supply was switched. Researchers are the presumed heroes of this tale – the ones that got accountability from officials. However, that belies the efforts that the people living in Flint went to in order to raise the alarm, as E. Yvonne Lewis, a long-time community advocate, explains.

Interviewee: E. Yvonne Lewis

Well, residents actually took bottles of water to make it known to the leadership that there was a problem here.

Interviewer: Nick Petrić Howe

Despite this, she says the residents’ voices weren’t heard by the people in power.

Interviewee: E. Yvonne Lewis

However, they were heard loud enough for researchers and even the popular media to come to the city to see for themselves and to hear the concerns that the residents were raising. But sometimes when it got to the real kind of scientific kinds of questions, the voices of residents were not respected in the same way because we didn’t speak the same language as the scientists spoke.

Interviewer: Nick Petrić Howe

Research-community collaborations are not always easy, as Yvonne alluded to. But in the end, the problems Flint was facing only came to light due to the efforts of both scientists and community members. And this isn’t the only example. Public health researchers often come to Flint with the best intentions to work on various projects. But a lack of consideration of what the community may bring to a scientific project risks causing resentment. In fact, Yvonne has also experienced outright dismissal from scientists.

Interviewee: E. Yvonne Lewis

When I didn’t have a medical background when we were talking about medical issues, I was actually dismissed from the table while actually sitting at the table. When I’m enquiring about how community members were identified and how they were categorised as being uncaring, unconcerned about their own health and wellbeing, I asked a question, ‘Who are you actually talking about because this is not the attitude that’s reflected among all the members of our community?’ And so, one of the researchers asked me what my background was, my academic background, and when I said I had a bachelor’s in business administration, the comment was, ‘Okay.’ And then they turned from me and began to talk amongst themselves more about the project as if I was no longer sitting at the table.

Interviewer: Nick Petrić Howe

So, how do you make an effective community research collaboration? For Rick Sadler, an academic who’s been working with the community in Flint on public health projects, part of it is being humble, so don’t make assumptions.

Interviewee: Rick Sadler

Honestly, I feel like it’s embarrassing for researchers when they come in and propose something and the community says, ‘We’ve already done that,’ or, ‘We don’t want that,’ or, ‘You’re not accounting for these five issues.’

Interviewer: Nick Petrić Howe

Yvonne, in fact, says she’s experienced occasions when researchers have been speaking about Flint without having visited it. They then made assumptions about the people living there. For example, that all minorities within Flint are in poverty. In contrast, Rick has found that projects have worked best when they’ve had input from the community.

Interviewee: Rick Sadler

One of the projects I got involved with was going to create a local food app, so an app that would provide more localised information about the retailers and the restaurants and the grocery stores that sell healthy food, and the focus group participants marked up a map highlighting places that they both like to shop and specifically avoid shopping. And what it wound up giving us was a kind of a qualitative-quantitative mash up where I took the places they had all circled and I superimposed them on to each other and then from that group came up with a generalised area where people did or didn’t like shopping. And we learned from that, people who were living in some neighbourhoods didn’t like shopping in their own neighbourhoods, and some of the reasons they had cited included that they didn’t feel safe shopping in these stories but also that the stores didn’t have quality food. So, it kind of painted a picture of food access that was more nuanced than just me plotting grocery stores on a map and saying, ‘Oh look, you have fine food access.’

Interviewer: Nick Petrić Howe

Yvonne also believes that projects work best when community members are involved. In fact, them having a role in the design of experiments can be especially valuable.

Interviewee: E. Yvonne Lewis

When we’re engaged early on, we have opportunities to look at what those differences are, those nuances might be, that can challenge or can either improve the research if we’re working together, and ultimately the goal is are we doing work collectively that is going to improve the quality of life for the residents in the community.

Interviewer: Nick Petrić Howe

Both Rick and Yvonne believe that it’s important to put enough time to allow the relationships between researchers and the community to flourish in the long term. However, the nature of scientific work can constrain researchers. They may need to quickly publish a paper or write the next grant. Do these demands allow for long-standing relationships to be forged? Well, for Rick, keeping the community in mind is important for every step.

Interviewee: Rick Sadler

When we write grants, a lot of times we have the community partners right there with us. They may not write 50% of the grant, but maybe they write 25% because the type of work we’re proposing requires that community engagement.

Interviewer: Nick Petrić Howe

Yvonne, as a community advocate, gets the demands of scientific work too, and she suggests talking to the community about it.

Interviewee: E. Yvonne Lewis

One of the things that we have come to terms with is that we have to understand what those conflicts are, and so often we talk about let’s set realistic expectations. Help me as a community member understand what your challenges are. What are the requirements? What do you need to get your goals accomplished? And then let me tell you what my expectations are and what my needs are as a community member to have good-quality outcomes for the community. Because what we do understand is research is necessary.

Interviewer: Nick Petrić Howe

The key to any relationship is communication, and community-research partnerships are no different. And that relates to the language used as well. Research is famed for its acronyms and jargon, and this can form barriers. Even the context can cause confusion.

Interviewee: E. Yvonne Lewis

And so even though we both might be saying ‘public’, we may have different understandings of what that means. For me as a community member, when I say ‘public’ I’m thinking about all of the people that live in the houses and walk in the streets and engage. When another discipline may be talking about ‘public’, whether it be from an engineering science perspective, maybe from an ethics science perspective, that definition of ‘public’ could be very different and could be only a particular segment of the community.

Interviewer: Nick Petrić Howe

Fundamentally, building a relationship with a community or them with researchers is the same as any other – it needs time and respect. Researchers need to consider community members right from the inception of their ideas. They need to talk to them, spend time with them, and don’t come in with assumptions about who they are. Research can really benefit many communities. Flint is still coming to terms with the water crisis, and the long-term health effects are not known at this point. Research will hopefully continue to help the citizens of Flint and many communities beyond, so it’s something that’s worth getting right.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

That was Nick Petrić Howe. For this piece, he spoke to Rick Sadler from Michigan State University and E. Yvonne Lewis who is the director of outreach for Genesee Health Plan in Flint, Michigan, and CEO of the National Center for African American Health Consciousness. For more on community-based research, check out the Comment article written by Rick and Yvonne, and we’ll put a link in the show notes. Well, David, a lot in that one then and I think it shows the benefits that can be had when scientists and the local community work together, but it also shows the perils when that isn’t done.

Host: David Payne

Yeah, and what was great about that piece was the candour there, wasn’t it, this sort of honest appraisal. I love the way that actually towards the end of the piece they’re talking about future collaborations, and I think one thing about collaborations of course is that the best ones continue. You can be collaborators for multiple points throughout somebody’s career. You can collaborate with people repeatedly, and I think it was really important that that came out, this idea that this is not a one hit wonder. We’re in this for the long haul. We’re going to find other ways in which we can really, really work together effectively.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

And Nick made the point that it’s respect and it’s communication that really are super important for endeavours like this.

Host: David Payne

Yes, it’s communication, isn’t it, so we’re back to the idea of the scientific prenup, the team charter. Get it all out there. Get your thoughts down. Talk about some of the potential tensions that you’re going to find along the way and hopefully fruitful collaborations will continue long into the future. I’m sure that they will.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, David, you mentioned the word ‘future’ there. Does the special take a look at where collaborations may go given all we’ve been through recently?

Host: David Payne

Yeah, I mean we do touch on that and obviously after such an extraordinary year, we were quite keen with the special that we didn’t focus solely on the pandemic, but most of the content alludes to it and indeed some of the case studies that we’ve got were very much informed by how collaborations were forged during the last sort of 12-15 months. And in fact, in the feature article that we’ve got we are actually asking our audience, ‘How as COVID impacted your collaborations with international partners?’ And we’re keen to capture the positives, the negatives and of course, if they respond positively or negatively we’re inviting them to write in with details. And also the other thing that we’re doing is we have a bigger survey actually going on at the moment. We do a biennial salary and job satisfaction survey and the fieldwork for that is out at the moment, so there are links to that on the website, and that does include questions around how the last sort of 12 to 18 months has been for researchers around the world and we do touch on collaborations there. So, I think it is very much a case of watch this space, Ben. We will be returning and picking up on some of the themes that get covered in the special which goes out this week.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, David, let’s leave it there then. Hopefully you’ll come on the show again and we can revisit the results of those surveys and see where those collaborations might be going and what lessons have been learnt. But for the time being, maybe you could tell us where all of this week’s content can be found?

Host: David Payne

Yeah, we’ve collected all of the articles together. You can find them at go.nature.com/collaborations.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Excellent, and we’ll put a link to that in the show notes of course. And also, we’ve got a video to highlight as well. It’s a short documentary which looks inside a collaboration between one team in China and another one in the UK. There’s language barriers, WeChat queries, differences in scientific practices and valuable friendships made along the way. It’s a fascinating watch. Find it over at youtube.com/NatureVideoChannel and we’ll put a link to it in the show notes as well. As always, you can reach out to us on Twitter – we’re @NaturePodcast – or on email – we’re podcast@nature.com. But for now, for this special collaboration edition of the Nature Podcast, I’ve been Benjamin Thompson.

Host: David Payne

And I’ve been David Payne. Thanks for listening.

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