A plea for team science

This post is also available in Dutch.

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.*

For centuries, the individual, independent scientist – the genius – has been performing research on his own. However, nowadays, only focusing on this way of doing research is insufficient for resolving many questions of present-day science. Instead, we also need larger, systematic studies executed by teams of experts that go beyond collaborations between independent researchers. Here I will explain why we need this rebalancing towards ‘team science’ to achieve better results and better working conditions for the people involved.

Team science, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, Flickr

Growing fragmentation – victim of its own success

Science has made our planet a much better place to live. Consequently, societies are investing in academic research: While there were a few hundred thousand scientists in the 1950ies, estimates now reach ten million. However, the number of people we can interact with is limited and thus, scientists today only have useful exchanges with an ever smaller fraction of their scientific community.

This is also relevant for scientific knowledge; while Newton could integrate all the physics knowledge of his time, scientists today are specialized in ever-smaller fragments of existing knowledge. Adding to this, because of continuous technological advancement, scientists use new, more and more complex methods, so they need to specialize on a single or a small set of methods.

Rising complexity – low hanging fruits are harvested

Given scientific progress, one can readily assume that there is development from rather easy questions that have been resolved already to more difficult, complex ones. Because of this rising complexity, we recently noticed slowed advancement: Scientific results appear to have less real-world impact and given their complexity, they are often harder to replicate.

Scientists are like artists

Scientific careers are focused on independence and individuality. In their PhD, researchers are trained to become independent and thereafter as a scientist, individual performance is assessed in a cut-throat competition for funding and permanent positions. This puts substantial personal burden on scientists not seen in many other jobs for knowledge workers.

Moreover, researchers sign their publications, talk about their findings and receive prizes similarly to poets. Of course, many researchers collaborate, but their focus on individual gain often puts a centrifugal force upon such collaborative endeavors. This focus on artist-like individuality is ill-suited for answering complex scientific questions that require diverse expertise and methodology.

How to keep science successful

Unprecedented innovation, for instance in digital communication, was achieved without highlighting individual contributions. Instead, large research and development teams follow systematically specific aims. There are also good examples in science: Hundreds or even thousands of scientists discovered gravitational waves or the Higgs boson together.

Also in biomedical research, the first team science projects are underway. The Allen Brain Institute is one rigorous effort where large teams of scientists work towards defined aims that are followed systematically by standardized procedures. Although smaller, the nascent Healthy Brain Cohort, currently developed on Radboud Campus, has a similar team science approach.

Food for thought

Despite these promising examples, scientists need to do more and find further ways to better structure academic research, so that it stays successful and provides better working conditions for academics. I am happy to receive feedback and discuss these thoughts.

 

Guillén Fernández

Guillén Fernández became a principal investigator of the Donders Institute in 2002, where he is heading the Memory and Emotion research group. Since 2010, he is one of the Donders directors. Before coming to Nijmegen, he obtained his medical degree, doctorate, and habilitation at Bonn University. He received full training in clinical neurology and cognitive neurosciences in Bonn, Magdeburg, and Stanford. Guillén Fernández is a fellow of the Academia Europaea and the Memory Disorder Research Society. He received the Richard-Jung Award, the Hermesdorf Prize, the Vici Award of the Dutch Research Council, and an Advanced Investigator Grant from the European Research Council.

* African proverb

Further information

Koch C and Jones A. Big Science, Team Science, and Open Science for Neuroscience. Neuron 2016; 92: 612-616

Utzerath C and Fernández G. Shaping Science for Increasing Interdependence and Specialization. Trends in Neuroscience 2017; 40: 121-124

Radboudumc Grand Round by Guillén Fernández: “Team Science – Reforming the organization of biomedical research”

Written by Guillén Fernández. Edited by Harriette Koop and Marisha Manahova.

4 thoughts on “A plea for team science

  1. It is very attractive idea and do believe that it will bring science forward!
    But, team science success, let it be the unprecedented innovation, for instance in digital communication, Allen Institute for brain science, Higgs boson etc. have all be achieved in an environment where the term PI and most importantly the PI-linked associated benefits were not in effect as well as they did get a large pot of money to solve problem from government, philanthropist, maybe universities etc to support these team efforts.. Until we need to fight for personal recogintion in our grant systems, university assessment, it remains to my mind is a bit futuristic and idealistic idea. We need to create first the environment in which we can freely interact, collaborate and most importantly without limitations could SHARE…
    But we will need to start doing it and in the same time create the right conditions…
    Donders/Radboudumc has some resources that can be used and we can even positively discriminate people who have been part of such efforts in the assessment of their work and professional advances regardless of their positions in a project and or in publications. You need not to change the system (which might be not easy) you could just add amendments…

  2. This is a very inspirational blog post.
    Team science is also impeded by the quick turn over due to short project contract. Even if researchers wanted to stay in the same local team across multiple small projects in time in the aim to reach together a bigger goal/question, they might not be able, because researcher have to follow grant opportunities. Even worth, in France (and may be other countries), people cannot have more that 2 consecutive short term contracts in the same organization.
    So local team science to enhance the investigation of greater question is difficult, it has to be international and flexible. I think it’s also one of he aim behind the open science dynamic.
    Overall, Science is definitely evolving in multiple ways toward more collaboration.

  3. Very nice and important blog Guillen. I also resally like the comparison between science and art – there are many links! I have actually been asked to give a rather prestigious lecture about this very topic next year at the famous Edinburgh Culture Festival.
    And artists can work together too to achieve the best possible result – so why can’t scientists do the same?!

  4. Dear Guillen,
    Thanks for sharing your viewpoint. I think your plea for team science is entirely justified given the complexity of (bio)medical and (neuro)science today. Placing emphasis on team endeavour and accomplishments can, however, only replace our current system if we develop an alternative to assess each researcher’s contribution to the team. Perhaps we could learn from (team) sports where this way of judging personal value is mainstream, varying from very individual (solo) achievements of a forward liner to the subservient actions of a midfielder. Somehow, we need to find a way to make each contribution ‘measurable’. My guess would be that peer review might be more valid in this respect than pure numbers.

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