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The Oncofertility Consortium is at the forefront of a new era of scientific investigation: Team Science

Francesca Duncan, PhD


I was recently introduced to the formal concept of Team Science when I was fortunate enough to attend the First Annual International Science of Team Science Conference hosted by the Northwestern University Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute (NUCATS) on April 22-24, 2010.  To understand Team Science, it is important to know the definition of a team.  As Dr. Stephen Fiore (Faculty at University of Central Florida) defined it: a team consists of two or more people or groups who interact dynamically, interdependently, and adaptively towards a shared goal.  They do so while maintaining only partially overlapping knowledge and come together to solve intractable problems.

This meeting highlighted three key points about Team Science as it relates to Basic Research.

1) There is an increasing need for Team Science in Basic Research. As Dr. Benjamin Jones (Associate Professor at the Kellogg School of Management) explained, nowadays there is an ever-growing pool of knowledge.  For a scientist to succeed, he or she must either spend more time in training or choose a narrower expertise.  Many scientists are choosing to specialize in a narrower field, which means the individual capacity decreases.  As Dr. Jones so eloquently put it: “With the burden of knowledge comes the death of the Renaissance [person].”  If the scientist wants to have a broad impact, he or she must join a team or collaborate.  In fact, teams are becoming ubiquitous, and research has shown that teams, especially those that span institutional boundaries, produce higher impact papers.

2) To succeed in Team Science is difficult – especially under the framework of Basic Research. Although there are many benefits and rewards to working as part of a team, there are many inherent challenges.  As Dr. Daniel Stokols (Professor at University of California, Irvine) highlighted, when scientists work as a team there are risks, including conflicts and strains, information overload, and fragmentation of research activities.  Furthermore, scientific teamwork requires a complex research infrastructure, and can potentially have detrimental societal ramification if it fails.

Establishing cohesive and productive teams in basic research is particularly challenging compared to other disciplines for multiple reasons that Dr. Joann Keyton (Professor of Communication at North Carolina University) brought to light.   First, for example, basic research is propelled by grants that span several years.  Technicians, students, or post-doctoral researchers, whose tenure in a particular laboratory varies, perform the funded research.  Thus, the team that begins a project is unlikely to be the team who follows it through to the end.   Second, collaborations are difficult to establish when researchers work nonstandard hours and may be separated by time and geography.  Third, research tends to be composed of distributed teams with researchers working on multiple similar yet different projects.  For example, each graduate student must have his or her own unique project to graduate.  As a result, potential team members form weak relationships with each other and identify more with the Principal Investigator (PIs) than with an overarching task or goal.

3) Tools are being developed to make Team Science work for Basic Research.  “Everyone knows that there is a magnetic pleasure of working with a successful team” states Dr. Howard Gadlin (Ombudsman, National Institutes of Health).   However, Dr. Gadlin affirms that teamwork tends to fail in research because scientists fail to be explicit about expectations.  Dr. Gadlin’s recipe for success is to sign a “prenuptial” agreement prior to entering a collaborative union.  This agreement should cover the following: overall goals and priorities, a definitive timeline, responsibilities, authorship and credit, methods of communication, and conflicts of interest.   Periodically the team should meet to evaluate the collaboration and refine the infrastructure as necessary.  Dr. Keyton also believes that teamwork can be improved if the entire team is integrated.   For example, PIs should include the students and postdoctoral researchers in decision-making processes and idea-generating meetings.  Furthermore, all the students and postdocs on a given grant should know each other and understand the entire scope of the grant on which they are working.

In addition to these tips, tools are also being developed to help researchers grasp the notion of Team Science and put it to work.   Dr. Kara Hall and her group at the National Cancer Institute will be launching the Team Science Toolkit in the coming months.  This online resource will not only aid in the study of the science of Team Science, but it will also support and facilitate team-based research activities and projects.   In July 2010, Dr. Bonnie Spring and her group at Northwestern University will be launching the Team Science Gallery – a series of online, interactive, learning modules geared towards demonstrating how team-based collaborations function in multiple disciplines.

The Oncofertility Consortium, which was highlighted at this meeting, is truly at the forefront of a new era in scientific investigation.  Basic researchers and clinicians from institutions around the country meet together in Virtual Space once a month to discuss research progress, convene in Chicago annually to summarize key findings, and are united with the common goal of exploring and expanding fertility preservation options.  The Oncofertility Consortium, however, is much more than a team of basic researchers and clinicians; it is an all-encompassing team comprised also of nurses, social workers, patient navigators, humanists, social scientists, bioethicists, religious scholars, economists, lawyers, and more.   With this union progress, change, and discovery are inevitable.

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