By Debbie Cornman, PhD and Katie Sharkey, MD, PhD

 

“The way in which our universities have divided up science does not reflect the way in which nature has divided up its problems.”

-- Kurt Salzinger, PhD (2003)

 

As our world becomes more complex, governments, institutions, and especially funders are seeking dynamic solutions society’s most important problems. It makes sense: Solving for terrorism, climate change, health disparities, chronic disease, and so many other important issues cannot be achieved by one person alone.

This realization has led to a surge in interest and investment in cross-disciplinary research collaborations to address these pressing issues – also known as team science.

Team science is not a new concept; scientists have been collaborating with one another for years -- so why all the emphasis on team science now?

It Really Works

Academic institutions, industry, national governments, and funders are realizing the benefits of a team science approach to addressing multifactorial societal problems -- and they’re putting their dollars on like-minded investigators.

Research shows that team science approaches can lead to results with greater scientific impact, innovation, productivity, and reach than single-investigator approaches.

Team science has also led to scientific breakthroughs -- like the development of antiretroviral medications -- that would otherwise not have been possible.

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If Team Science Is So Effective, Why Don’t We Just Create Teams of Researchers?

That would be great, wouldn’t it? Realistically, we know that not all teams are productive, and working with others can sometimes introduce challenges that slow or prevent projects from achieving their scientific goals.

Take leadership as an example of a key factor in a team’s success. Many leaders of scientific teams are appointed based on their scientific expertise -- not their leadership experience.

Industry and the business world have yielded an extensive body of research on the leadership qualities, styles, and behaviors that enhance a team’s performance and lead to success. But as you may have seen from your own research team experience, much of this knowledge has not yet translated into the scientific realm.

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There are also many factors at play that can impact a team’s success, such as funding trends and institutional infrastructure, resources for data sharing and communication, policies around promotion and tenure, and agreements on proprietary rights to data and discovery, as well as mechanisms for feedback and reflection.

And of course underlying all of these factors are the team members themselves: Interpersonal dynamics among members and the collaborative skills and experiences that each teammate does, or does not, bring to the group.

So, What Does a Successful Team Look Like?

Successful and effective research teams all share these eight key qualities:

  1. Clear communication among all team members
  2. Regular brainstorming sessions with all team members participating
  3. Consensus among all team members
  4. Problem solving done by the group
  5. Commitment to the project and the other team members
  6. Regular team meetings are effective and inclusive  
  7. Timely hand off from team members to ensure the project is moving in the right direction  
  8. Positive, supportive working relationships among all team members

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Team Dynamics to Avoid at All Costs

The team’s leader should be actively working to address any issues before they become established norms. Team members also have a responsibility to help create and maintain a positive, collaborative environment.

Whether you’re the leader of your team, or a collaborator, be on the lookout for these dynamics that can lead to toxic team environments:

  • Lack of communication among team members
  • No clear roles and responsibilities for team members
  • Team members “throw work over the wall” to other team members, with lack of concern for timeliness and work quality
  • Team members work alone, rarely sharing information and offering assistance
  • Team members blame others for what goes wrong, no one accepts responsibility
  • Team members do not support each other
  • Team members are frequently absent, therefore causing slippage in the timeline and additional work for other team members 
  • Scientific goal sits at the center of the collaborative effort, but supporting features need to be in place to avoid the derailment of the team.
  • Trust: without trust the team dynamic runs the risk of deteriorating over time.
  • Shared vision.
  • Identifying team members and purposefully building the team.
  • Promoting disagreement while containing conflict.
  • Setting clear expectations for sharing credit and authorship.
  • Self-awareness and strong communication skills contribute greatly to effective leadership and management strategies of scientific teams.
  • While all successful teams share the characteristic of effectively carrying out these activities, there is no single formula for execution with every leader exemplifying different strengths and weaknesses.
  • Successful scientific collaborations have strong leaders who are self -aware and are mindful of the many elements critical for supporting the science at the center of the effort.

You, or your colleagues, may be hesitant to adopt a team science model simply because you have not been trained to do so. The good news is that as team science becomes more widely adopted, so do training and support programs.

See a list of helpful team science resources, or take the next step by learning how to create a  “Science Prenup” for a successful collaboration.