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The pros and cons of team science

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NIH and many other federal funding agencies and sponsors increasingly tout the importance of multidisciplinary research, commonly called “team science.” Despite the increased emphasis on team science, many investigators, including myself and other SPHHS faculty, were not trained in this model. For many, it is an uncomfortable stretch. Since my arrival to GW, I’ve observed and listened to the challenges expressed by faculty as they venture or consider venturing out into the land of team science. Sometimes the challenges are real and experienced; sometimes the challenges are not yet experienced but anticipated, leading to avoidance. I will put my biases up front—I am a believer of team science. That said, because I traveled in teams most of my career, I am keenly aware of both the pros and the cons.

To the up side, investigators may…

  • be exposed to expansive ideas and viewpoints on a topic, leading to research questions that might not be considered in isolation
  • experience high levels of collaboration and in turn efficient problem solving and increased productivity in scholarly output
  • be able maximize assets of non traditional partners from industry and community-based organizations
  • have easy access to mentors (especially for junior faculty)
  • experience more fun and collegiality in their research
  •  reach professional goals (such as promotion and tenure) more expeditiously and efficiently
  • obtain faster research translation and impact
  • gain a competitive edge in grant proposals

On the other hand, investigators may…

  • have reduced autonomy due to the need for group consensus/decision making
  • need to spend added time in team meetings due to increased needs for communication and integration of perspectives
  • need to continually negotiate authorship position
  • sacrifice always being seen as the lead, independent researcher
  • have to convince the institution or department of the importance of team science and investigator roles in the team’s scholarly output
  • be challenged to find the ideal theoretical, methodological, contextual fit of a multidisciplinary research question and the resulting proposals, papers, etc.

Certainly, all types of science have a place, and the type of research question may drive the approach. But as the feds and other funding sources place greater emphasis on big projects with multiple principles, research dollars are cut, and universities begin to warm up to shared scientific leadership and credit, now is as good of a time as any to explore stepping outside of the traditional silos. Moreover, team science may well be the future for our students’ careers—as faculty, even if we choose to stay in the silos, it is our job to teach students alternative research models that will maximize their success.

I do not ‘sugar coat’ the challenges. And I appreciate that some disciplines are more challenged than others by integrative, team science approaches.  There are many strategies to address the inevitable barriers. I believe that establishing trust is a centerpiece to overcoming the challenges. I point you to the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching & Learning in collaboration with the Columbia University Center for Bioethics and the Columbia University Office for Responsible Conduct of Research for a very good module on “Collaborative Science”. This module details how to head off some of the challenges and increase the likelihood of successful partnerships. It is worth a look!

Also, for quick reference, one of my colleagues, Scott Leischow, PhD, and his team published a forward thinking paper in 2008 (Am J of Prev Med) detailing the changing face of science and the importance of systems thinking to address public health priorities. It remains relevant today.

2 Comments

  1. I am currently taking the Clinical and Translational Science MSHS program; the following tutorials are a good intro to team science that I learned about in one of my classes:

    http://teamscience.nogginlabs.com/teamscience.html

  2. Thanks for the link-I assume anyone can register? I welcome the opportunity to hear about your experience with the MSHS program.

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