BOOKS AND ARTS

What makes teams tick

Kara L. Hall examines a study of current research on scientific collaboration.
Scientists work on the pixel barrel at ATLAS.

Researchers collaborate at the ATLAS experiment at CERN.Credit: CERN

The Strength in Numbers: The New Science of Team Science Barry Bozeman & Jan Youtie Princeton University Press: 2017.

Tackling global challenges such as food insecurity, or advancing complex technologies like quantum computers, requires collaboration. ‘Team science’ may involve two researchers in the same department, or thousands across the globe: teams of teams, such as those at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, Europe’s particle-physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland. To develop techniques for 3D printing of human tissues, say, researchers must integrate life science and material science with electrical and mechanical engineering; transcending such disparate disciplines complicates collaboration. 

As the complexity of team science increases, so does demand for sophisticated skills, strategies and resources. Yet currently, although it is relatively common to find scientific structures and norms suited to small, single-discipline research teams, support for more-complex teams remains inadequate.

In 2006, a new cross-disciplinary field was launched: the ‘science of team science’ (SciTS). Its aim is to build an evidence base to help administrators, funders, researchers and others determine the best ways to structure and support scientific teams and improve their effectiveness. The field examines the impacts of, for example, science policies, organizational structures, technological tools, team management and individual competencies on the success of science teams. In The Strength in Numbers, science-policy specialists Barry Bozeman and Jan Youtie delve into one aspect of SciTS: managing teams.

Drawing heavily from a survey of 641 researchers, interviews with 60 faculty members and web posts from 93 anonymous contributors, the authors focus on conflicts in relatively small teams and co-author relationships. They classify collaborations into four types — dream, routinely good, routinely bad and nightmare — and offer advice for addressing factors such as working style, career stage and trust. 

For many, The Strength in Numbers might come across as a missed opportunity. Bozeman and Youtie state that research on collaborative teams has become fragmented, or “balkanized”, yet they risk fuelling such divisions by citing literature from leading SciTS scholars in just a handful of paragraphs. The authors intermittently mis­characterize and dismiss existing SciTS research and resources such as the Team Science Toolkit, instead of considering how those might bolster their “prescriptions”. Much of their advice is either overly specific or vague. To one researcher, they recommend: “Get through the project the best you can, and then do not work with the senior colleague again.” 

Meanwhile, they tout their newly developed “Consultative Collaboration” strategy as the primary answer to the complexities of team science. All team members, they argue, should be consulted at key points in a collaboration to pin down values and choose the next steps. Yet fewer than a dozen pages are devoted to discussing the approach, and only a handful include explanations of how to use it. This leaves the reader to ponder what strategies such as “effective communication, not constant communication” actually mean. Consulting the decades of existing literature on the science of management, leadership or teams would have provided detail and depth.

And detail and depth are sorely needed. As I talk to researchers, science administrators and leaders, I hear frustration (‘We tried getting faculty members to collaborate across boundaries, but it didn’t work’). I also hear resistance to changing rewards and incentives (‘Language about team science in our policies would lower our bar for promotion’) and confusion about how to support team science (‘Why fund large centres, instead of having lots of small grants?’). Leaders often want to maintain tradition (‘We value team scientists, they just shouldn’t get tenure,’ or ‘It’s unethical to encourage junior investigators to do interdisciplinary research’). Researchers may have difficulty adjusting to multidisciplinarity (‘The more transdisciplinary I become, the less I seem to fit in at my institution’). 

Bozeman and Youtie present SciTS as one of several revolutionary trends in science, alongside commercialization of research, the drive for gender diversity and multiculturalism, and the rise of multidisciplinarity. To propel SciTS forward, Bozeman and Youtie acknowledge the need for multi­level and systems approaches — yet state that the analytical and data requirements “are prohibitive”. 

Probably the biggest barrier to conducting more systematic and complex SciTS research is the lack of established support for SciTS scholarship from designated federal funding programmes. With adequate funding, SciTS experts will be able to build cross-disciplinary teams of researchers and put their scholarship into practice. 

The great mission of science is, directly or indirectly, bettering the world. Yet its structures and cultures are misaligned with key approaches, such as team science, that are crucial to advancing its mission. What changes should happen? Do we scale up bold ones, such as restructuring our universities, as Arizona State University in Tempe is doing? Do we continue to foster new roles, such as those of interdisciplinary executive scientists who broker knowledge connections across large initiatives? And will modest moves, such as creating new promotion policies for team scientists, make a difference? 

Evidence generated by SciTS can inform such decisions. The 2015 US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report Enhancing the Effectiveness of Team Science was the organization’s third most downloaded publication that year. The report lays out the opportunity and promise of SciTS: to use science to transform the ways researchers do science.  

doi: 10.1038/d41586-017-07525-w
Nature Briefing

Sign up for the daily Nature Briefing email newsletter

Stay up to date with what matters in science and why, handpicked from Nature and other publications worldwide.

Sign Up