Published November 19, 2019
When many people think about scientific research, they often picture a lonely professor with a test tube or in front of his computer. But increasingly, that picture is changing.
Now it is common for an investigative team to consist of experts from several diverse disciplines who work together to answer questions that are of interest to all of them.
The University at Buffalo’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute’s Team Science Core works with investigators to ensure that team members work together more efficiently and effectively.
What is team science?
“When we talk about team science, we usually have in mind interdisciplinary investigators – people at the same level working together on a project that none can complete without the help of others,” says Ekaterina I. Noyes, PhD, MPH, from the Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health at UB’s School of Public Health and Health Professions, who serves as CTSI’s Team Science Core director.
“Team science requires the active participation of multiple experts. It’s a fundamentally different type of research than what could be accomplished by an individual investigator. It involves people from very different fields,” she continues.
Team science is more important today in healthcare research, Noyes says, because researchers have begun to recognize that many real life healthcare challenges couldn’t be tackled successfully by methods and approaches within one scientific field, like epidemiology or economics. “Complex problems require complex solutions,” she says.
With the growth of the internet, researchers are exposed to more scientific journals outside their areas of expertise that contain studies similar to ones they might be working on, or that present similar challenges, but are being handled using different methods. When they are more aware, investigators become more eager to adopt different strategies, she says.
Challenges to team science and the role of the CTSI Team Science Core
But there are challenges that must be overcome by members of cross-disciplinary teams, Noyes points out. That is where the Team Science Core comes in.
Noyes and her co-directors, Patricia Ohtake, PhD, PT, from the Department of Rehabilitation Science in the School of Public Health and Health Professions, and Prasad Balkundi, PhD, MBA, from the Department of Organization and Human Resources, at UB’s School of Management, work with investigative teams to break down barriers that can impede progress of research teams.
One of the biggest challenges cross-disciplinary teams face is communication, Noyes says.
“People in different fields use different jargon that their team colleagues might be unfamiliar with,” she says. “It can make people uncomfortable and less likely to want to collaborate.” But if a team shares a common interest and the team’s members are dependent on each other for help and support, there is an incentive to learn other experts’ jargon.
One of the key functions of the Team Science Core is to help team members learn how to communicate with people outside their field. “We help them to recognize the common knowledge we all share,” Noyes says.
Another challenge is that clinician scientists take care of patients all day, and are able to only set aside small windows of time for their research, whereas investigators spend more of their time in research. Clinicians aren’t always able to meet with colleagues when and where they would like, because they have other responsibilities.
“Where to meet is always a question when UB researchers are spread over three campuses,” Noyes says. “Someone is always inconvenienced.”
But when team members discuss logistical issues like these, they can find a compromise, Noyes says.
Yet another challenge arises when it comes to publishing, which is a significant part of investigators’ work. “People who try the team approach sometimes find that they can’t get multidisciplinary research published, because historically many journals had a very narrow scientific focus,” she says. With multidisciplinary research less visible, junior Investigators were less likely to learn about team approach and consider adopting it. But the Team Science Core can assist teams with this.
Balkundi, for example, has trained people about team processes and how to brainstorm to draw on their unique knowledge bases, and has also taught them about social networking as it relates to teams. “The potential of a team is maximized when members focus on each other’s unique knowledge and skill.”
While most of the time Team Science implies multiple investigators, sometimes it involves other stakeholders, as well, Noyes says. Not-for-profits agencies, patients and other community members often need to be incorporated into the team structure. “These people expand how we conduct research because they bring a really diverse expertise in other areas than academia,” she says. But they also expand the logistical challenges that Noyes and her colleagues can assist with.
Meanwhile, the primary challenge Noyes and her team face is getting the word out to researchers that their services are available to support investigators interested in building multidisciplinary collaborations for their new research projects. CTSI is exploring the idea of making team science training a routine part of project approval, and then offering teams help with consulting and resources that can help streamline their efforts, she says.