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The Team Science Revolution

CREDIT: Photo by Jeff Kramer

This article was originally published on 11 March 2010.

"You should look for people who value-add to what you do, rather than people who recapitulate your own opinions. Think immediately about developing your career as a team science career." -- Nora Disis

Many efforts in translational research focus on building teams of researchers who can tackle critical questions about human health from different perspectives. But getting people to function effectively on those teams is the real challenge, says Nora Disis, principal investigator for the Institute for Translational Health Sciences at the University of Washington, Seattle.

"There's been a lot of investment into trying to get people from disparate organizations or disparate disciplines together to tackle the big problems. But the real significant barrier ... is that people who are doing completely different things have a hard time talking to each other. They do not work as comprehensive teams," says Disis, who is also a professor of medicine in the oncology division at the University of Washington.

Disis and her Washington colleague John Slattery put the focus on how to cultivate productive teams in a commentary in this week's issue of Science Translational Medicine. A successful multidisciplinary research team, they say, requires strong leadership, the appropriate infrastructure, and a learning environment that creates shared experiences that team members can use to build their projects.

Readers can access the full text of the commentary: "The Road We Must Take: Multidisciplinary Team Science," Mary L. Disis and John T. Slattery, Science Translational Medicine, 10 March 2010.

In a follow-up interview with Science Careers, Disis says that solid communication is at the core of those essential team elements. "You have to get people to be intimate with each other and be able to learn each other's disciplines to the point where they can communicate about it and, more importantly, feel comfortable enough with each other that they can be critical," she says.

Another essential feature of team science is checking your ego at the door. "All scientists are used to being alpha dogs. They have their own ideas and controls. When you get in a team situation where the problem is big and multifaceted, if ... people are constantly trying to be that alpha dog, you'll never move forward," she says. "Team dynamics are different from individual, 'siloed' scientist dynamics where you're trying to convince the rest of the world that what you're saying is true. Our systems around science have not really developed to encourage that type of group interaction, and that's really got to change."

She offered advice for how individual investigators can work to foster a team environment. One simple suggestion is to give the lab a name that reflects what the lab does -- not whose lab it is. "Who wants to spend their life in 'Dr. Smith's lab'?" she says. "Give your lab a name based on what you do so that other people can come into this group and stay and have ownership."

Next, she recommended that individual investigators move research projects forward by finding people outside of their discipline to tackle the problem and then create an environment where you can work together. "As you develop that team, look outside your discipline to people who bring new knowledge to you. You should look for people who value-add to what you do rather than people who recapitulate your own opinions," she says. "Think immediately about developing your career as a team science career."

Advancing the team science concept can be more difficult at the institution level. In the commentary, Disis and Slattery write, "Academic research institutions are not purposefully arranged to cause such diverse teams to coalesce. ... Most often, in academics or industry, the lone inventor/innovator or the multifunded 'independent' laboratory head is seen as the pinnacle of success. We are wrong to persist in this single ideal if the goal is to translate scientific discovery into improvements in human health."

In her interview with Science Careers, Disis challenged young scientists to devote thought and energy to changing institutional infrastructure that serves as a barrier to team science.

"We have so much knowledge now about health-related issues and disease from a molecular level on to the phenotype. We all feel like we're on a precipice of being able to do something great," she says. "If the structure is preventing that greatness, disassemble it. Let's join together and articulate a better structure that does work around team science. This is how we move ahead. We all have to change our structure -- training, incentives, how institutions work. And that's going to take a lot of people making a lot of noise."

Kate Travis is the editor of CTSciNet.

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