The Importance of Team Work

By Anna Lynn Spitzer

Irvine, Ca, December 4th, 2012 -- "
Once, scientists worked alone or with others in their own fields of expertise. Today, their collaborations span disciplines, institutions and sites, thanks to advances in science and engineering, and a trend towards increased specialization.

From a few researchers working together in the same institution to a large group dispersed across geographic and organizational boundaries, teams' configurations vary widely.

Many scientists use the terms multi-, inter- and transdisciplinary interchangeably but in fact, there are distinctions. “It’s a continuum of integration,” says expert Dan Stokols, UC Irvine Chancellor’s Professor in the School of Social Ecology, who studies the science of team science.

Multidisciplinary research involves scientists from different fields who collaborate in a sequential way. “It’s a little bit like an assembly line, where people remain anchored in their own fields,” he says.

Interdisciplinary research involves closer, day-to-day, more reciprocal interaction. Team members combine concepts and methods from their respective fields, integrating their perspectives but remaining rooted in their own disciplines.

Tokols: "Knowledge is getting so specialized. tackle complex scientific or societal problems [researchers] have to combine their focused knowledge with areas that compensate for their blind spot."

The zenith is transdisciplinary research, the hallmark of which is integration that “starts to really break new ground and transcend the home fields of each team member through some new conceptual framework or methodological approach,” says Stokols.

Transdisciplinarity can spawn new fields, like psychoneuroimmunology, bioinformatics, and translational genomics. “What differentiates transdisciplinary teams is the degree of commitment and immersion in solving a common problem, and the willingness to think out of the box.”

It's not a one-size-fits-all proposition.  “Some questions in science may not be ready for cross-disciplinary team collaboration; they may be much more discipline-centric,” according to Stokols. 
Still, the model captivates. Scientists, engineers, doctors, social scientists, computer experts, policymakers and other researchers are opening their arms and their laboratory doors to new ideas and new partnerships as they seek broader, more comprehensive ways to address the world’s complex challenges.
n the sometimes bumpy terrain of cross-disciplinary research collaborations,  Stokols is a modern-day pioneer.

The social ecology professor is an innovator in the science of team science (SciTS). Not to be confused with team science itself, the fledgling discipline designs and implements studies to gauge the success (or failure) of multi/inter/trans disciplinary research teams, and seeks to understand and manage circumstances that influence collaborative effectiveness.

Says Stokols: “The question is: When does team science work well and lead to new innovations, and when does it falter?”

His research indicates that successful collaborations share a high degree of personal give-and-take; an appropriate physical environment; organizational, institutional and policy support; and a readiness to embrace new collaborative technologies.

And members of the most effective teams have a certain “behavioral repertoire” supported by key values and beliefs: among them a strong trust in the value of inclusiveness and integration of diverse perspectives. “If you go to conferences or read journals outside your field you have a higher likelihood of serendipitously getting some insights from those fields and bringing them into your own work,” he says.

Close cooperation is critical. One recent study compared the publishing output of scientists working within a large transdisciplinary initiative with those working alone or in smaller groups on the same topic.

Initially, the individual investigators published more but four or five years later, the transdisciplinary researchers had surpassed them. “There’s often a lot of muddling through that happens when a team comes together in one of these initiatives,” he says. “But once you get that synergy going you can gain some economies of scale from it, along with some very innovative breakthroughs.”

Typical indicators of scientific accomplishment only go so far when assessing success or failure in multidisciplinary collaborations. One of the SciTS field’s challenges has been to address new questions.  What is the quality of cross-disciplinary integration achieved by team members? Are cross-disciplinary methods and conceptual frameworks sound? How novel are the outputs of cross-disciplinary teams? What impacts are they likely to have on society or science?

In addition to helping develop these new assessment rubrics, Stokols has worked with colleagues at the National Cancer Institute to create a “team science toolkit,” a wiki-type online resource that supports team science collaborations, disseminates effective practices and offers tools to help teams maximize their efficiency:

Stokols' interest in cross-disciplinary collaboration goes back many years. In graduate school he petitioned to add minors in city planning, sociology and public health to his social psychology program. I wanted a broader, more community-oriented perspective that went beyond the laboratory orientation of experimental social psychology,” he says.

At UC Irvine he worked his way up to director and founding dean of the School of Social Ecology, where interdisciplinary approaches link research and community problem-solving -- "all the things I am interested in."

Also at UCI, he participated in a National Institutes of Health-funded Transdisciplinary Tobacco Use Research Center (TTURC), where he studied the participants’ daily interactions, accomplishments and frustrations; he used that experience to assist the National Cancer Institute in evaluating its transdisciplinary research and training centers initiatives. 

Currently, he consults with the National Academies, helping to evaluate the scientific output of its National Academies Keck Futures Initiative (NAKFI) seed-grant program.

More and more, he says, large cross-disciplinary scientific teams are the norm in the world of research. “Knowledge is getting so specialized that in order for someone to tackle complex scientific or societal problems they have to combine their very focused knowledge with areas that compensate for their blind spots.”

Multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, or transdisciplinary research, however, are not panceas. “I’m not a cheerleader for everybody being transdisciplinary or even interdisciplinary,” Stokols says. “I think some people work better drilling down into a particular discipline and coming up with breakthroughs [that way].

“I don’t feel one size fits all. You do not necessarily have to do science bigger; you have to do it smarter.”