The Team Science Learning Module was created in partnership with the integrated Translational Health Research Institute of Virginia (iTHRIV), University of Virginia’s Office of the Vice President for Research and the Environmental Research Institute. iTHRIV is funded by the National Center for Advancing Translational Science of the National Institutes of Health Awards UL1TR003015/ KL2TR003016. Contents of this website do not necessarily reflect the views of the institution and/or the National Institutes of Health.
Special thanks to Belinda E. Hernandez, M.Ed., UVA School of Education and Human Development for researching and writing module content. We are also thankful to the researchers, editors, and evaluators who donated their time, expertise, and knowledge to this project.
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integrated Translational Health Research Institute of Virginia (iTHRIV). (n.d.). Team Science Learning Module. https://guides.hsl.virginia.edu/teamscience/
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In order to build bridges between scientists in different disciplines, the physical and technological environment must be explored. Spatial proximity is essential to consider as frequent and infrequent contact can result in positive and negative outcomes, respectively. Team members' workspaces should be designed to encourage frequent interactions and informal communication.
The physical environment in which teams are organized is essential for team science success. In particular, having a shared physical space can foster interaction among team members and facilitate conversations that range from consistent meetings to conversations that occur organically (National Research Council, 2015). Spaces in closer proximity can increase the frequency in which team members interact which can facilitate continued discussions that can expedite project goals while also giving rise to non-work-related discussions that can help establish positive relationships and trust. The inverse can occur as well, such that creating shared spaces among scientists from different disciplines can increase the chances of team science as individuals who interact more are likely to collaborate (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2019). As mentioned in Stokols et al. (2008), teams working remotely may miss out on essential cues (e.g., emotional, spatial) that can result in conflict, misunderstandings, and interpersonal problems. Therefore, increasing the spatial proximity among teams, such as their offices and laboratories, can increase communication, trust, and the likelihood that individuals will collaborate (Stokols, 2006).
Example: A great example of a shared space that can enable team science work is the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, as noted in National Research Council (2015), which provides unconfined spaces that have adequate seating availability and whiteboards, offices shared with scientists from different disciplines, and several glass walls with markers so that scientists can write ideas that are being discussed and not wait until they return to their offices. Additionally, the director of the transdisciplinary BioX Institute at Stanford University, underscored the importance of having a physical space where core faculty can access good quality food and coffee. Their building has these amenities which they utilize as a gathering point and to recruit scientists across different disciplines (National Research Council, 2015). Furthermore, the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon built the Academic Health Sciences Complex to increase interdisciplinary research. The building was designed with unconfined laboratory space and several shared facilities and areas where individuals could physically interact (e.g., open stairways, seating areas, coffee, and snack rooms) (Bennett et al., 2018).
Oftentimes, team science groups collaborate outside of their institution and are located in different geographical locations (National Research Council, 2015). For this reason, most investigators meet virtually which can cause coordination and communication challenges including availability to meet among members from different time zones and different technological resources according to each person’s organization. For example, working in different time zones could result in differences in people’s level of alertness such that some teams may be closer to their end of the day than others. However, if teams anticipate these challenges in advance, they can create a plan to overcome these barriers, such as coordinating so that workflow could proceed 24 hours a day, making the team more productive (Stokols et al., 2008).
Example: A team science group, including the California Institute of Technology, University of California System, National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and National Institute of Natural Sciences/National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, are currently developing the Thirty Meter Telescope (National Research Council, 2015). These organizations cross international boundaries and time zones, and most likely encounter the challenges mentioned above. Without the level of cooperation needed from each team, our world would not benefit from global expertise and these transformative projects would not be feasible (see National Research Council, 2015 for more information).
Tips for success
According to Hall et al. (2017), organizations should strive to provide their scientists with access to comfortable meeting areas so that groups can engage in discussions and brainstorm comfortably. Teams should also aim to meet in comfortable spaces where all team members have a place to sit and engage in discussion without interruptions. Organizations should design distraction-free workspaces for individuals who require a quiet space to concentrate. There should also be a location where team members can have confidential conversations. Additionally, team members should have access to plenty of environmental resources so that they have the option to both interact and maintain their privacy.
Institutions engaging in team science should demonstrate recognition and support of the value of collaboration by providing appropriate spaces for scientists to engage in convergent work.
Although creating shared spaces is essential to collaboration, the reality is that many, if not most, team science groups will not have the shared facilities suggested above. If these physical arrangements are not possible, then it is essential that there are regular in-person meetings, social activities, and other opportunities for individuals to interact with other team members (Stokols et al., 2008) (see Hall et al., 2017 and Stokols et al., 2008 for more information).
As noted in the National Research Council (2015) there are a variety of constraining factors to collaborating virtually. For example, some teams may have a lack of technological resources, including bandwidth, technical support in their organization, and appropriate hardware and software. A team must have the bandwidth and connectivity necessary to work virtually, and have access to equipment that can allow for electronic communication and remote collaboration. Team members must also become familiar with the technological tools necessary to prepare for meetings, share information with others virtually, and to have consistent opportunities for face-to-face meetings throughout the span of the project. Teams should establish effective systems that allow teams to track activities across each organization electronically and that all teams can easily access. Ideally, teams will also utilize tools that can notify others when action is required on their part, in addition to communicating this during face-to-face meetings. Successful teams often have a “communication covenant” that delineates the organizational differences across each team’s institution and the procedures the members have come to a consensus about to coordinate activities, communicate effectively, and delegate tasks. Furthermore, it can be challenging to establish positive relationships, social cohesiveness, and trust remotely since there is a limit to the nonverbal and spatial cues that can be conveyed virtually. Thus, having regular face-to-face meetings and remote social activities can help increase the components that make an effective team (e.g., trust, social cohesiveness, respect). This can also help teams establish common ground on topics and allow for organic conversations related to differences in opinion on tasks. Lastly, each team must have leaders that are enthusiastic and committed to remote collaboration and who can create opportunities for effective communication that bolster remote collaboration (see National Research Council, 2015 for more information).