Authored by Courtney Hunt, PhD
University of Houston
It is a tough time to be an academic researcher. The number of new doctoral degrees awarded annually continues to increase; federal funding for research projects has gotten tighter and more competitive, and research questions are getting more complicated. All of these factors have driven the push for a collaborative team science approach. As more sponsors seek integrated solutions that require multi-disciplinary expertise, the traditional “research team” definition has evolved. As challenging as research can be, collaborative grant submissions can be just as complicated. Researchers are extensively trained to be experts in the data and experimental methods in their field. However, it is rare for a researcher to have received focused training on the best practices of collaboration and teamwork; rather, the researcher is often left to figure it out on their own, often by trial and error. Fiore et. al recently published an article addressing the shortcomings and potential solutions for integrating collaboration training into the curriculum for the next generation (Nature Human Behaviour 2018). But how do we help the current researchers conduct effective team science at an academic institution?
This is a problem that Research Development Professionals (RDP) are primed to help solve. RDPs, especially those housed in a central administration office, often function as campus resources and should have extensive knowledge of the cross-disciplinary expertise of their faculty. Since RDPs have a deep understanding of sponsors and funding mechanisms, RDPs are in an ideal position to identify potential funding opportunities for multi-disciplinary research projects that match the expertise at their institution. If the team will be responding to an existing funding opportunity, the motivation for a researcher to participate may be obvious. Alternatively, many institutions will begin to develop a team in anticipation
of a funding opportunity. In this scenario, the RDP can provide information as to the genesis of the research project as well as potential benefits for the researcher. Regardless of whether the effort is proactive or responding to a call, the RDP can and should be at the front line of assembling this team. Importantly, RDPs can view the project from an objective, 10,000-foot level to identify all potential key players and stakeholders that need to be included in, or at least informed about the project.
When assembling a collaborative team, there are multiple plans that can be effective. One option is to host an invite-only meeting for potential partners. This option is likely to have a more focused discussion since the players are known entities; structuring the meeting as invite-only also allows the RDP to help balance team dynamics and personality “fit”. However, this approach may miss at least one potential collaborator that could be a strong contributor to the team. Another approach is to make the meeting an open forum for anyone interested in the idea. An open forum may be less focused initially and require more moderation to keep the meeting on track. However, it may capture related researchers that can make important and previously unidentified contributions. In either case, researchers that are not a great fit, either by the direction of the project or participant personality, will often self-select out of the team. At a minimum, an RDP can observe and take note of possible personality or project challenges from these meetings. This knowledge will enable the RDP to moderate future discussions and subsequent meetings to keep progress on track. The RDP can also help ensure that all participants are able to contribute to the conversation and project by asking questions to specific participants and redirecting discussions that are being monopolized.
Once a group of interested researchers have been assembled and a direction for the research project chosen, it is essential to identify both a faculty leader and an RDP leader, if there is a team of RDPs working on a project. The faculty leader is the project champion and will drive the science. The RDP drives the organization and administrative progress of the team. Some examples of items that an RDP may take responsibility for fall into two broad categories:
Organization and Communication
- Initial and subsequent team meeting logistics
- Send agenda, take minutes and distribute minutes with action items to team members
- Follow up with participants; Send reminders as project pieces are due
- Manage conflicts that arise
- Brief administration on team progress as appropriate
Project Planning and Execution
- Help team develop timelines, overall goals, and milestones
- Guide team through any institutional processes
- If responding to a FOA, ensure project is compliant and responsive
As indicated above, there are many ways in which a research development professional can contribute to and enhance team science. Team science requires strong communication, organization and “people skills”- all of which are major strengths of an RDP. As the demand for collaborative research continues to grow, the role of the RDP in team science will also be in more demand. In response to this growing need, several federal entities have developed extensive resources on the best practices for effective collaborative research.
Fiore, S.M., Graesserr, A. and Greiff, S. (2018). Collaborative problem-solving education for the twenty-first-century workforce. Nature Human Behaviour, 2, 367-369.
The author thanks Dr. R. Michelle Sauer for reviewing the article.