team science part two

This follows an earlier post on team science, which considered the growing share of research problems that don’t seem solvable by lone researchers.

For universities this is unfortunate because our inherited structures of higher education, things like the nested hierarchies of colleges and departments, and rules for faculty promotion and tenure, assume that people’s research, scholarship, and creative activity is compartmentalized and easy to attribute to individuals.

As the frontiers of knowledge get more complicated and interdisciplinary, new research looks less and less like the model we’re set up for.

This week a joint UC-CSU project called CREDITS met at Lake Arrowhead to consider team science. Participants were half faculty and half administrators, and heard from experts in the ways research groups form, function, and sometimes unravel.


Such retreats are a privilege of jobs like mine, of course – the idea that you leave your daily routines to meet and hash out alternate approaches to the whole machinery is almost dizzyingly rarefied.

But my own purpose was very down to earth: as academic administrators we regularly need to evaluate the work of people in disciplines we don’t know much about, and traditionally we’ve done that by deferring to the opinions of other experts in the same field. So if an entomologist is up for some kind of recognition or promotion, you ask other entomologists if the candidate’s work appears in reputable bug journals.

Such expedients fail in a world of team science, where a breakthrough may be celebrated outside of the faculty member’s home discipline, and result from an effort with dozens, or sometimes thousands, of teammates. How do you know what’s worthwhile, if the seminal understanding in “ant routing” was appreciated less by other ant scientists but more by UPS dispatchers, management theorists, and environmentalists?

This question of appropriate attribution goes beyond trophies and certificates: in tenure cases it’s literally someone’s job at stake.

credits-1So that’s what I was watching for.

On the administrator track I saw presentations from Kyle Lewis, Dan Stokols, Maritza Salazar, and Renee Rottner, whose own work is itself interdisciplinary, serving as examples as well as guidance. They draw from sociology, psychology, mathematics, counseling, and management, among other fields. But what struck me about their research wasn’t just its varied source materials, but also the numerous ways it’s been applied.

That is, each has consulted to private businesses, philanthropy, and multiple branches of the military – pretty much anyone trying to organize collective action. Recognizing their work appropriately isn’t just a matter of checking for citations among other team-science thinkers, or bylines in the Quarterly Journal of Cooperation-ology. On the contrary, their contributions are important precisely because they transcend the boundaries of expertise, and are applied by people in other fields.

I think there are implications in that for higher ed, and that our tenure committees – or for that matter our graduate programs and department curriculum committees – might do a better job of recognizing significant contributions if they included people from other departments, or even from outside of colleges and universities altogether.

We include some external evaluators already, in things like tenure review and grant applications. So what I’m calling for isn’t a difference of paradigm so much as of emphasis. The cases I’ve participated in consider expertise the real litmus test, and use outside triangulation as a kind of corroboration after the fact.

Maybe it’s time we reverse that.



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