“I am Intramural” Series: Collaboration & Teamwork

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Dr. L. Michelle Bennett, Director of the Center for Research Strategy at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), has lectured extensively on the subject of “Collaboration and Team Science” in conjunction with former NIH Ombudsman Dr. Howard Gadlin. Their Field Guide has become the go-to resource for scientific teams around the world who are interested in establishing successful collaborations.

Dr. Bennett

We spoke with Dr. Bennett about why collaboration plays such an essential role in science today and why researchers within the IRP value access to it so highly.

IRP: What first brought you into this role as an advisor on collaboration?

LMB: I was hired just after a merger of two NCI divisions—a division of basic science and a division of clinical science—one of my roles was to help catalyze interactions across the new organization. As I worked with newly forming interdisciplinary research teams, I became interested in understanding what factors contributed to their success or failure. And then I met Howard, who had approached collaboration from the conflict perspective. We thought it would be interesting to conduct a research study into better understanding what makes great team science.

IRP: Why has team science and collaboration become such a make-or-break skill for researchers today?

LMB: If you really want to address some of today’s really complex problems to move science forward teams of people with different backgrounds and different expertise are needed. Each team member contributes their knowledge and scientific strengths from their disciplinary backgrounds and experiences to the project.

IRP: What are some common collaboration pitfalls to be aware of?

LMB: Number one would be authorship or sharing credit. The second most likely would be communication issues—you know, people from different disciplines often speak different “languages” which can lead to misunderstandings. The third would be failing to clearly define roles and associated responsibilities among the various team members.

IRP: Can you give us 3 quick tips on the best approach to collaboration?

LMB: My top three:
1. As you’re entering into a collaboration you must create a shared vision
2. You have to establish a strong foundation of trust among participants…
3. …and you have to clearly set expectations (for example, develop criteria for authorship and credit sharing early in the relationship) and define roles and responsibilities

IRP: Help! My collaboration is a disaster. What’s your best advice to save the relationship/project?

LMB: My first question would be whether everyone agrees that they want to save it. If so, I would encourage the team to deconstruct how they arrived at the current situation and work on create a new foundation for building trust and rebuilding the relationship. It can be helpful for people to revisit the vision and goals of the project to make sure everyone is on the same page. Reestablishing roles and responsibilities can also help the group rebuild trust.

IRP: Why do you think investigators and trainees rate collaboration as such an important facet of the IRP?

LMB: There are a couple of reasons—one is that we have fewer barriers to collaboration within the IRP—for example, because of our funding approach it isn’t necessary to write a grant to collaborate with someone else. In addition, our research environment enables access to world-class resources and labs, even if in different building, are usually within walking distance. I also believe there is a strong sense of a shared vision within the IRP—this idea, passion and commitment of making a difference—which I think drives us all in what we do.

For more details on Team Science, download the complete Field Guide.

And check out the first entry in The “I am Intramural” Series.

Category: Collaboration