Editor’s Note: This is a commentary on Ravid K, Faux R, Corkey B, Coleman D. Building interdisciplinary biomedical research using novel collaboratives. Acad Med. 2013;88:179–184.
Several recent prominent reports1 and white papers2 have called attention to the need to work across traditional boundaries and disciplines if biomedical science is to fulfill its promise in the future. There is general agreement that new paradigms to encourage work across the life, physical, and engineering sciences are needed, but tradition, as well as organizational and cultural barriers, must be overcome to fully realize the vision of team science described in these reports.
An Important Experiment
The article by Ravid and colleagues3 from the Boston University School of Medicine in this issue describes three years of their institution’s experiment to foster interdisciplinary science. Recognizing the need to facilitate communication and partnerships across disciplines siloed in traditional academic departments, they have instituted a “bottom-up” approach to identifying areas of research; research vision and strategy are typically initiated by a core group of faculty. Using the enticement of modest administrative and trainee financial support, they created a new organizational paradigm they have called affinity research collaboratives (ARCs). Each ARC must consist of investigators from several departments and at least two disciplines. Also, there is a pre-ARC period of faculty affiliation/project(s)’ self-selection prior to formation of a peer-reviewed ARC. The ARCs’ self-selection and bottom-up approaches stand in contrast to the top-down team approach common in industry, where teams are purposefully assembled to tackle a specific target.
Amongst the several interesting issues their experience raises, we focus our commentary on the following:
1. How do investigators find each other in the complex world of current-day academic health systems and biomedical universities?
2. What barriers exist for teams to come together and do meaningful work?
3. What is the role of trainees in interdisciplinary science, and what impact does participation in team science have on their future careers?
4. How should emerging experiments in team science be evaluated?
First, how do investigators find each other?
As our institutions have grown in size and complexity, often accompanied by geographic dispersion, the traditional “water cooler effect” of accidental encounters of colleagues who know each other well is increasingly being replaced by experiments in creating virtual communities. These experiments generally use various combinations of investigator profile directories supported by social networking platforms, but even more sophisticated data networks have been envisioned that could connect researchers on the basis of the pathways they study.4 These tools, still in their infancy in development and acceptance, certainly appear to hold promise in overcoming difficulties that any individual investigator has in finding and creating a network across disciplines. They promise to transform networking from being solely based on whom you know to true institutional knowledge networking. This represents a transformation in the networking paradigm from one to many to many to many, but it is yet to be seen whether these modern tools can truly replace the traditional water cooler.
Second, what barriers exist for teams to come together and do meaningful work?
It is easy to jump to money as the reason, but the apparent success of the Boston University model suggests that a surprisingly modest amount of financial support can bring teams together and keep them together long enough for meaningful work to be done. For sure, careful review of proposals using knowledge of what constitutes a successful team is likely to play an important role and help maximize return on investment. Patience is also likely needed because the benefits accruing from teams tackling truly meaningful problems will likely take years and may not be immediately apparent. The pre-ARC concept of investigators’ self-selection employed by Boston University may be a useful one in determining which teams are likely to engage in meaningful work and have a reasonable likelihood of staying together. Sharing experiences of what characteristics are the most predictive of team success and what constitutes optimal review will be important for designing programs going forward.
Despite widespread enthusiasm for team science, there are several deeply embedded traditions in our academic cultures that promote the concept of independent brilliance and self-reliance; these give our investigators pause in fully embracing real interdisciplinary work. These include, but are not limited to, recruitment, promotion, and tenure decisions; study section perceptions versus actual behavior; institutional space allocation policies; and variable comfort with entrepreneurial soft-money cultures versus traditional hard-money cultures. These self-imposed cultural and organizational barriers are more real to junior investigators and become highlighted as teams consist of members from increasingly disparate disciplines and schools.
The ARCs of the Boston University model are virtual in the sense that the investigators stay in their allocated spaces and do not physically come together as a team. Again, this is in contrast to the industry team model, where governance and reward are more conducive to fluidity in team assembly and disassembly, and physical contiguity of team members is more common. Space-governance policies and turf security in most academic institutions make fluid movement of investigators into and out of space on the basis of interdisciplinary project science difficult. Similarly, academic reward structures make the kind of team fluidity seen in the private sector difficult and, perhaps, undesirable. It will be interesting to try to develop performance metrics and evaluation tools to compare the pros and cons of each model.
Third, what is the role of trainees in interdisciplinary science?
In their article, Ravid and colleagues specifically identified trainees as recipients of some of the funds provided to the ARC teams. The authors did not discuss trainees’ role or impact further, but it is likely that trainees not only will play critical roles in actualizing virtual teams but that, as a result of their comfort and facility with social networking, they will also likely be the initiators in bridging disciplines in the future. Several institutions including our own have introduced interdisciplinary “boot camps” and team science projects early in graduate training to foster cross-disciplinary collaborative approaches to science that we hope will drive future behavior and culture. It would be useful to conceive of a prospective evaluation plan for these new models, although retrospective studies such as the one carried out for the Markey Scholars program can also be highly informative.5
Finally, how should emerging experiments in team science be evaluated?
In their report, the Boston group describe notable success—in just a three-year period—of interdisciplinary publications, grants, new open-source resource development, and increased collaboration as measured by social network analysis. These are very real and impressive outcomes, but we should be thinking down the road of ways to evaluate whether the output from team-based science actually has more impact in changing paradigms and opening up new avenues of research; whether more risk-taking science is being performed when science is team based; whether there are fundamental implications for the organization of our academic health systems, schools, and departments; what the implications are for training our students; and what the short- and long-term implications are for investigator reward and development.
Other disclosures: None.
Ethical approval: Not applicable.
1. Committee on a New Biology for the 21st Century: Ensuring the United States Leads the Coming Biology Revolution. A New Biology for the 21st Century.. 2009 Washington, DC National Academies Press
3. Ravid K, Faux R, Corkey B, Coleman DBuilding interdisciplinary biomedical research using novel collaboratives. Acad Med. 2013;88:179–184
4. Committee on a Framework for Developing a New Taxonomy of Disease.Toward Precision Medicine: Building a Knowledge Network and a New Taxonomy of Disease. 2012 Washington, DC National Academies Press
5. Committee for the Evaluation of the Lucille P. Markey Charitable Trust Programs in Biomedical Sciences. Evaluation of the Markey Scholars Program. 2006 Washington, DC National Academies Press