Pioneering Collaborative Team Science

Every university has its unique strengths, but what do you do if you want to elevate the stature of a large group beyond the addition of the individual expertise? This was the challenge for The Ohio State University (OSU) Center for Applied Plant Sciences (CAPS). For a Land Grant University in a state known for agriculture, the plant sciences program had many strong researchers, yet lacked the national visibility of other institutions with less accomplished faculty. They wanted to change that.

“It’s not something individual faculty can necessarily do by themselves,” said Donnalyn Roxey, former Program Manager at CAPS. “We knew if we wanted to increase our standing and influence, we needed to create teams of our faculty, pulling together the different areas where we’re already strong.”

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More and more, funding agencies issuing large grants are favoring bidders who can demonstrate their ability to work as a team. Except scientists aren’t really trained to work in teams. If anything, scientific training is becoming hyper-specialized. It’s not that individual scientists can’t solve important challenges, but they may not recognize how their skillset could address other challenges outside of their own domains.

As the problems we confront become more complex, this capacity to apply expertise across domains becomes critical. “If we want to tackle really important issues, it has to be interdisciplinary,” said Erich Grotewold, Director of CAPS at OSU. He and Roxey worked together to build the university’s interdisciplinary plant science capacity and expertise. “And what’s considered interdisciplinary these days is nothing compared to where the things are going. We’re really in the infancy of this kind of interdisciplinarity.”

Renaissance Teams

There was a time when a scientist wasn’t classified with the specificity that distinguishes a geneticist from a microbiologist. If you think back to the Renaissance, a revolutionary period in human history, a scientist was someone with a robust education who could give you thoughtful input across a variety of subjects. But now scientists are trained to be experts in a single and increasingly narrower domain. Said Roxey, “We’ve lost this sense of a renaissance man, or woman. The question now becomes how do we create the renaissance team?”

Not all scientists feel compelled to work in teams, and part of the challenge facing CAPS has been empowering faculty to realize that working as a team can be better than working alone, and has its own rewards. But they also know it’s not for everyone.

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“You have to realize which faculty has the potential to work in teams and which ones will not,” said Grotewold. He acknowledged that certain faculty members provide a huge service to the university even if they aren’t on a team. “The last thing we wanted was to bring in faculty who will never be able to work on a team and force them to work in a system in which they are going to be less efficient and less excellent than they are right now.”

Timing is part of the equation, too. Roxey pointed out that a well-funded faculty member may generally not be as receptive to working in a team. “But if I’m going through a hole in my funding – and we all know that happens – and somebody tells me that I need to be part of a team, I might be more receptive.” Especially if the reward is money for research.

Creating Teams

The CAPS program experimented with different mechanisms to create functioning teams. Their Synergy workshops – 2-day events modeled on KI’s Jumpstart model – brought together faculty from different domains to explore potential interdisciplinary collaborations, with potential funding on the table for teams around interesting project proposals.

Concerned that they might be filtering out academics who didn’t want to spend two days in a workshop but could still create or contribute to a team, CAPS also used an Open Call to solicit proposals. These proposals did not fare as well, possibly because they missed the immersive workshop experience that creates a strong base from which faculty realize the value of the interdisciplinary approach they’ve forged.

CAPS also encourages opportunity teams, constructed in response to an industry sponsor. If a posited challenge is truly of scientific interest, Grotewold and Roxey reviewed the OSU faculty and their expertise and put together a team to address it. Opportunity teams are stakeholder driven and the sponsor puts up the funds, whereas with the first two mechanisms, CAPS is holding out the carrot to inspire creative team science.

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Harvesting Talent

Imagine having a database of 3,000 different faculty members, across 4 different campuses, and wanting to mine them to collect the right brainpower to participate in an interdisciplinary event. It could take weeks of work to find out who’s available, let alone if these academics would be primed to participate in related projects.

This was Roxey’s mission. To accomplish it she began constructing the CAPS Hub, a massive database project that would permit her to easily explore the vast talent within the OSU faculty and efficiently put the right people in the room to address a particular plant science challenge. A Master’s student in the OSU’s Agricultural Communication, Education and Leadership program, Beth Hustead, created a user guide with best practices and surveys to pilot the Hub with a scientific team. If the pilot goes well, it will launch with all of their teams, to help with outreach and networking among the scientists at the OSU.

“I wanted to find who’s collaborating, not just publishing together, but really collaborating,” said Roxey. “And I wanted to be sure I put in the experts, and the people who want to play in the sandbox.”

Finding a Common, Enduring Language

A biologist and a chemist already speak a very different language. Add an engineer and mathematician and it can take a while for the team to find a common language. Having a toolbox, with a process and guidelines, is critical. “It’s been an eye-opener for a lot of our faculty,” says Roxey, “who didn’t really know there is a science of team science.”

Teams can learn and move quicker than individuals. Diverse teams, representing different disciplines, can bring new perspectives to complex problems. The collective brainpower of teams makes them more creative and more likely to succeed at innovation. But in order for it all to work, it helps to have tools to help keep groups working collaboratively. Developing a common language is critical, and the language of the creative process lends itself nicely to this task. The CAPs program has incorporated this vocabulary into their process, but stealthily. They don’t talk about creativity, they just use it. “As the faculty know, they get to go to really cool workshops and talk about really cool science.”

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The trick is to make sure the teams are sustainable and can thrive throughout the entire lifecycle of a team experience. A team can be energized at an idea-generating workshop, and remain robust when an exciting idea gets funded. But when the funding stops, it’s harder to keep a multidisciplinary team engaged in the mission of the CAPS center. And for teams that don’t function as well, Roxey looked to create different opportunities to stay involved with the CAPS mission, whether in a team or not.

Measuring Success

The CAPS initiative is too young to fully measure its impact. But aside from typical benchmarks like grant money and publishing, they’re seeing changes. Faculty members are exploring areas that they would not have explored as individuals. CAPS is creating collaborations between researchers who would never otherwise find each other. Research projects that used to be one-offs are gaining momentum and evolving because of the robust teaming.

“I never expected in four years that we would be able to change the culture,” said Grotewold, “but I told the teams from the beginning to be looking out 20 years. Short-term metrics are a contradiction for what is really a long-term struggle. This is the main thing to becoming an absolutely first-class university.”

With this goal in mind, the CAPS initiative is leading the way for universities and scientists across the world. Cross-disciplinary scientific collaboration will only become more integral as time goes on. Being pioneers in this kind of collaboration is no easy task for the CAPS team, but they believe their faculty members are up to the challenge. “I don’t claim to be an expert about team science,” said Grotewold, “I just know if we do team science it will work better.”

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Know Further: More about team science. And more Resources for team science. Funding and evaluating team science. On-line resources to help you develop skills to lead a team science project. Collective Leadership of team science. The rise of collaborative research networks.