Creative Approaches to Support Team Science in Academia

Using Collaborative Design to Align Institutional Incentives and Interdisciplinary Team Expectations: The Case of Reappointment, Tenure, and Promotion

Dr. Veronica Stanich, Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities; Mr. Gabriel Harp, Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities 

As universities increasingly encourage interdisciplinary collaboration and team-based science, Reappointment, Promotion, and Tenure (RPT) policies must be retooled to better align with shifting practices and institutional values.

The Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities (a2ru) supports the integration of the arts, humanities, and design into the interdisciplinary, collaborative research fabric of universities. A2RU built a two-day workshop, grounded in insights derived from 600 interviews with faculty and administrators at 38 research universities, to support faculty and academic leaders who are charged with RTP policy.

This workshop transforms a2ru research insights into a unique, immersive experience that builds knowledge in three ways: 1) Participants acquire understanding and new frameworks to guide their work on their own campuses. 2) Workshop teams co-create tangible, portable tools that become vehicles for the dissemination of better RTP practices. 3) a2ru observations of workshop processes, coupled with participant feedback, inform future workshop iterations as well as further research. Critical elements of the workshop’s research-based content and design enable all three types of knowledge creation.

For example, consistent with previous scholarship, we find a recurring theme in the need to render explicit the unspoken expectations, assumptions, and definitions involved in the RTP process. With the user in mind, the workshop experience strategically organizes such relevant research insights according to the approach to RTP (institutional or individual), the key players (administrators and/or faculty), and the stage of the RTP process. In the resulting matrix, users can identify their own situations and thereby connect to germane issues.

The choice to mobilize research insights in a workshop format allows for the benefits of experiential learning, as well as knowledge-sharing among a community of peers. Structural choices for the workshop amplify these positive outcomes. Rather than positioning participants as passive recipients of information, the workshop is structured as a design sprint. This format augments the research-in-translation-to-practice experience, engaging participants as “makers.”

In addition to shaping participants’ experience of the workshop, the design sprint inherently results in creation—each small group of participants collaboratively creates a practical tool to support the RTP process. Such tools can be shared and disseminated, thereby extending workshop insights to a broader community of impact. a2ru actively supports this process, producing and distributing the best of these team-developed tools such as "What’s Next?" a card deck to facilitate personal research planning as well as mentor-mentee dialogue. Likewise, a2ru makes available the "Implicit/Explicit" card deck used in the workshop to surface unspoken understandings of RTP policy and indicate next steps.

a2ru research team members act as participant-observers at workshops and actively gather feedback from participants, gleaning new insights from the process.


Mcubed:  A Token-Based Seed Funding Program with No Formal Scientific Review

Dr. Valerie Johnson, University of Michigan; Dr. Mark Burns, University of Michigan

Founded by faculty at the University of Michigan in 2012, Mcubed stimulates innovative research and scholarship by distributing real-time seed funding to transdisciplinary faculty trios, or “cubes.”  Teams can secure $15,000 or $60,000 right away, keeping pace with the rapid information flow in today’s research environment. Through the program’s prior two cycles, a six-year, $27 million investment from U-M and its faculty members has yielded nearly $130 million in external funding, more than 320 publications, roughly 50 artistic and scholarly products and 20 invention disclosure reports or patents. To date, Mcubed has distributed funding to 648 faculty teams, with more cubes forming each month in its current (and third) cycle.  For the first time, Mcubed now includes all three University of Michigan campuses—Ann Arbor, Dearborn, and Flint—with 7000 faculty members in its online platform.

MCubed has been featured in venues such as Science (website), The Washington Post, and The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Reuters has twice recognized the University of Michigan system as one of the most innovative university in the world, in part due to the Mcubed program.  What’s distinctive about Mcubed, and what enables its speedy distribution of team funding, is its substitution of a token-based online peer review system for traditional scientific review.  While the lack of a formal scientific review process might appear risky, this departure actually de-risks institutional investments.  As recent studies have shown, review panels are typically challenged to distinguish the excellent proposals from the passable ones.  Mcubed eliminates this step.  Instead of investing in only a handful of proposals determined to be the “cream of the crop” from a lengthy proposal submission and review process, it spreads a smaller level of funding out among teams of researchers self-selected in a novel, real-time peer-to-peer review process.  The result is an excellent return on investment and a much healthier research climate.

In this presentation, we will share strategies for the program’s implementation across the three U-M campuses, discuss the impact of the program, and explore implications for evaluation and funding of transdisciplinary teams in the broader research landscape.


Working with your Research Development Office to Support Team Science

Dr. Betsy Rolland, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Dr. Holly Falk-Krzesinski, Elsevier

As team science expands in size and scope, investigators struggle to build teams and write proposals that implement the principles of team science and take advantage of what we know about making teams work. Outside of the NIH-supported Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA) institutions, few universities have resources specifically devoted to fostering and facilitating interdisciplinary research teams or writing proposals that give more than perfunctory attention to how the team will function. As funding agencies integrate team-science review criteria into their funding opportunities, the burgeoning field of Research Development seeks to fill this gap by helping Principal Investigators develop a deeper understanding of the published funding announcements and these special review criteria, while also distilling the field of team-science research into actionable goals and objectives, personnel, and institutional infrastructure to support complex proposals.

The goal of this session is to help team-science leaders understand how best to work with their institutional Research Development teams to submit winning proposals that will result in high-functioning teams. Drawing upon our experience facilitating team science and creating institutional team science services and resources, we will cover:

  • What is Research Development and how can RD professionals play a role in facilitating Team Science?
  • What services do RD professionals offer?
  • What are the key praxis concepts from the Science of Team Science that can help you foster and support multidisciplinary research team?
  • How are funding agencies assessing your proposal’s team-science components and using special review criteria to encourage inclusion of team-science support in proposals?
  • What types of research infrastructure should institutions offer to support complex teams?

SciTS Presentation: Working with You Research Development Office to Support Team Science


Agbioscience: Transdisciplinary Collaboration and the Land-grant University Mission in the 21st Century

Dr. Julie Aldridge, The Ohio State University

Agbioscience is identified as a significant source of scientific innovation and economic opportunity at land-grant state agricultural experiment stations (SAES) throughout the United States.  The impact of agbioscience has been the subject of multiple analyses and reports from private research entities, but a search for the term in online databases produces few to no results.  The goal of this study was to use an accepted and established research method to investigate agbioscience for the perspective of experts who are involved in the activity.  This study used the Delphi method to develop a definition for agbioscience, explore the differences between agbioscience and agricultural science, identify agbioscience research needs and priorities, and provide insight on how to better prepare future contributors to the field.  The expert panel for this study consisted of leadership from SAES and university extension’s agriculture and natural resources (ANR) program.  Participants represented the Southern, North Central, and 1890’s land-grant university regions. In addition to consensus on an agbioscience definition, the panel emphasized the need for transdisciplinary, collaborative approaches to real-world problem solving and identified a skills deficit in agricultural science program graduates and practitioners.  Students need to learn through practice how to collaborate beyond the land-grant system’s existing disciplinary boundaries.  Practitioners need professional development programs to help them develop these skills.  Another major theme to emerge is the need to communicate the value of agbioscience research with the public. Agbioscience generalists would have the potential to not only break through academic boundaries, but also to reconnect science-based agriculture with society at large. Currently, students and practitioners are locked inside an academic discipline model created in the mid-nineteenth century.  As one Delphi panel expert stated, “the status quo is self-fulfilling”.


Rethinking Science as a Vocation: 100 Years of Bureaucratization of Academic Science

Dr. John P. Walsh, Georgia Institute of Technology; You-Na Lee, National University of Singapore

Science has long been characterized as a craft practice, and even as a vocation. However, science is increasingly becoming a team activity. We argue that scientific teams are becoming bureaucratized with larger size: characterized by division of labor, standardization, hierarchy and decentralization. Furthermore, we develop this argument to show how this structural change can affect the training and careers of scientists at the individual level and also performance at the team level. We will discuss the training and careers of scientists, the role of new data analytics technologies, the relations between bureaucratization and institutional environment, particularly competition for funding, and the implications for scientific creativity, and for pathologies in science.

We then review a series of empirical studies we have conducted in this area to show the degree of bureaucratization and its effects on the work, careers and products of science. We find that larger size is associated with greater bureaucratization in the team and that over the last several decades there has been an increase in supporting scientists (those who are never lead authors).  We find that division of labor is associated with greater productivity in the lab for those doing applied research, but less productivity for those doing basic research.  Furthermore, we find that division of labor is associated with greater novelty in the publications, but also with greater likelihood of retractions. Hence, we can see the two faces of the bureaucratization of scientific teams.

We conclude with a discussion of the implications of these theories and findings and develop a set of policy recommendations and outline a research agenda designed to develop science policies and a sociology of science that match this shift from vocation to bureaucracy in science.  In particular, we argue that PIs need to decide the extent to which they will encourage “cross-training” in their teams, versus specialization.  And, similarly, the extent to which the lines of communication will be hierarchical versus more cross-cutting.  Concerns about productivity may push labs toward more bureaucratic structures, including early specialization of graduate students, and more hierarchical structures where students report to post-docs and post-docs report to PIs.  But, university labs have the dual function of producing science and producing scientists.  There may be tradeoffs in these two goals, and PIs may want to think about the tradeoffs when organizing their research teams.  Similarly, university career structures need to change in order to accommodate the growth of supporting scientists, with new positions, new career paths and new evaluation and reward structures that are matched to the changing organization of scientific work.

SciTS Presentation: Rethinking Science as a Vocation: 100 Years of Bureaucratization of Academic Science