team science part one

web meeting

Increasingly I find myself joining or convening teams online, for some focused discussion that may take half an hour to an hour. In a world of laptops, smart phones, and tablets, all webcam enabled, I’m getting new insights into my friends’ living rooms, bedrooms, and airline preferences.

I’m also learning that for a given task and ad hoc group of people, two or three of these short meetings, spaced about a week apart, can be more effective than conference calls or traveling to a single longer meeting.

But with longer and more complicated projects, the collaboration is harder to optimize. And what we’re seeing with the development of knowledge – a core business of higher education – is that the projects are all getting longer and more complicated.

That is, we face a dwindling number of pressing research questions that can be answered by a solitary faculty member. Instead, the new premium is on interdisciplinary teams, say in combinations of chemists, political scientists, economists, and engineers, pulling together to compare competing energy policies. Or cognitive scientists, educators, psychologists, social workers, nutritionists, and pediatricians figuring out the critical components of the first year of human life.

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These are questions that universities are well positioned to take on. We have the carrying capacity, the troves of smart people from different walks of life and ways of knowing. They are each expert in some field of inquiry.

What hardly any of my colleagues and I are expert in is how to work together toward a common goal. We may have developed our share of common sense and interpersonal skills, but colleges and universities aren’t especially known for either. Until recently we were mostly collections of cranky soloists, with a lot to learn from the emerging field of team science.

Last year the National Academies Press published Enhancing the Effectiveness of Team Science, a sobering look at the challenges inherent in group research at scale. For higher education I think a few of the NAP findings and recommendations stand out.

The writers open with advice for the teams themselves, calling for intentional selection and then targeted professional development for each member, taking into account each one’s specific personality and expertise. In a separate recommendation they call for research and professional development just for the team leaders. And for geographically distributed teams that use virtual meetings – a growing part of my own job – they advise additional team-building exercises and some room for local autonomy.

They close with a set of recommendations for funders to appropriately incentivize and support team science. And in between is this recommendation leveled at higher ed:

Recommendation 6: Universities and disciplinary associations should proactively develop and evaluate broad principles and more specific criteria for allocating credit for team-based work to assist promotion and tenure committees in reviewing candidates.

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In other words, we shouldn’t be surprised to find ourselves among idiosyncratic loners if our system favors them.

I’ve seen universities try different things to overcome the centrifugal force of disciplines and departments. Some are structural, like creating centers for multi-faceted inquiry into a particular complicated problem, like the Institute for Palliative Care at CSU San Marcos, or the tradition at CSU Channel Islands of coordinating annual searches across departments to create research cohorts. Others are mostly rhetorical but still effective, intentional messaging from the top and written promotion policies that value teamwork.


For the last few months I’ve been advising a team-science project called CREDITS, which is itself a large-scale collaboration. It originated as a partnership between California’s more selective and research-focused UC system and the CSU system of regional comprehensives, where I work. We’ve had in-person meetings and conference calls, and reviewed applications from faculty to join an upcoming retreat.

We asked applicants about their experience in team science, and what they found challenging. Two answers have stuck with me:

From a UC geneticist who works with government agencies, mathematicians, and attorneys: “The main obstacle to collaborative projects, in my view, is that a project is not necessarily at the same level on all the participants’ priority list, and this can result in frustrating delays.”

From a researcher in international coastal flooding: “This work is inherently interdisciplinary. As a coastal engineer, I work closely with other engineers, ecologists as well as economists and risk analysts to quantify the risk reduction value of coastal ecosystems and enhance their consideration within coastal planning and policy-making. The foremost challenge was understanding the language of another discipline, communicating my ideas and work to experts in other fields, and reaching a consensus on research goals, outcomes and process.”

I’ve thought of these two submissions more than once in just the last week, in places I didn’t expect.

To raise their graduation rates, all 23 California State Universities are trying to improve the student experience, an effort that creates new connections among faculty, front-line advisers, and a surprising number of back offices, all struggling with mismatched priorities and murky reporting relationships. Last Thursday I spoke to a doctoral student at San Diego State about her research into exactly what that’s like, and what steps administrators can take to make such collaborations easier. I’ll share her findings with you when they’re ready.

A little later the same day, I was in a meeting on the redesign of the CSU’s statewide web site. For decades it’s been organized entirely from our perspective, each department getting some dominion over pages to maintain. The redesign leadership is heroically shifting all that to a team approach, aiming for a visitor-centered site organized not by what we do, but by what visitors want to know about us.

Created with Nokia Smart Cam

Curiously, both of these were research-driven discussions, and both involved people across a mix of “disciplines” or ways of knowing, all rummaging around for a common way to talk to each other.

There is a lot at stake as we all try to get better at this – for the health of our planet, for mitigating coastal floods, and for simply getting more people through college, precisely to take on all those other problems.

But I wonder if we’re doing enough in higher education for this, or if the proficiencies of teamwork deserve more attention in the undergraduate curriculum.

Like the faculty who applied to the CREDITS retreat, my colleagues and I are too often stymied not by gaps in our specialized learning, but by under-developed tools for getting along with each other. We seem ignorant of things people outside of academia have already figured out.

The retreat is next month, and I’ll report back then.

Image credits: livingwagejourney.org, hivlawandpolicy.org.

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