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Team Science? It’s all Greek to me


Scientists from different disciplines must take care with how they communicate if we are to deliver true team science.

Posted on 28 December, 2016 by Hannah Macdonald


Along with the rudiments of lab safety (“keep away from the Bunsen burner”), my first science lesson at secondary school was memorable for the schoolgirl wisdom of the white-coated teacher: “If it moves it’s biology, if it smells it’s chemistry, if it doesn’t work it’s physics...”

This set the scene for the next five years with the chemistry, biology and physics departments in constant, albeit friendly, rivalry over resources, grades and the brightest students.

How things have changed. Now the scientific community, looking to answer increasingly broad and global problems, demands a similarly broad and global team to help answer them.

It’s an approach known as Team Science, and is as relevant to cancer research as it is to tackling climate change or putting Man on Mars.

No lone workers

The drive towards Team Science is reinforced by the funding bodies, which increasingly require evidence of multiple disciplines working together before they can be convinced to part with their cash.

These days a lone chemist, biologist or physicist working away on their own – however diligently – is as rare as a collaborative secondary school teacher.

In the world of the global economy, the internet and Big Data it is hardly surprising that scientific research is also going global. Of course it makes sense! For a challenge as multifaceted as cancer, surely a multifaceted team with a range of expertise can only be beneficial? After all, no one can be an expert in everything.

And while all this cosying up to each other brings the potential to make lightening leaps and bounds in scientific advances, it comes with its own set of problems and challenges.

Combining in the pool

On the same day as work from more than 40 groups across the globe analysing the genetic code of 560 breast cancers was published, Professor Steve Cowley on the Today programme touched on the difficulties of forming a cohesive team and scheduling the nuclear fusion experiment ITER in France – a collaboration of seven international partners.

The difficulties encountered with ITER, and in labs around the globe, are hardly surprising as scientists struggle to understand each other in every sense of the word.

Expecting scientists to work together from scratch is like expecting Tom Daley and Rebecca Adlington to combine to win a gold medal at water polo because they’re both at home in a swimming pool. Navigating through multi-disciplinary projects may well feel like sitting down to tea with the Mad Hatter.

Big business

Google ‘team working’ and it’s quickly clear that there’s a multi-million pound business dedicated to giving advice (at a price!) and coaching (even pricier!) about how to create an effective and successful team. Books have been written and careers have been made helping big businesses work collaboratively to meet the global shift.

Yet, in scientific laboratories around the world strangers from different disciplines, speaking different languages with different world views and histories, are meeting – sometimes virtually – to try and tackle some massive issues without addressing the basics of collaborative working.

We focus on the science but forget the basics the business world has known clearly for decades: successful team working requires successful communication.

Theory and practice

Of course we know – in theory – that communication is key and that words are vital for producing fantastic scientific publications, being awarded peer-reviewed funding or writing that thesis.

But these efforts are adjudicated by our peers with the same expertise. Are the challenges for a chemist communicating an advanced chemical reaction to a physicist who happily left chemistry at GCSE any different to a professor in molecular biology giving a public lecture to an audience of bankers?

Scientists are trained to choose words carefully when communicating their research with the public, but when communicating with each other we take less care – and arguably the propensity for misunderstanding is greater.

Airfix or small furry creature?

Despite a common language, words have different meanings to different people. Does the word ‘model’ conjure up a small furry creature, a thought experiment, an Airfix kit or Naomi Campbell?

And consider this: to a chemist, ‘structure’ conjures an image of molecular conformation, while a physicist may think of bulk material properties, such as stiffness.

Eighteen months into my ‘Team Science’ PhD, it took me many project meetings with supervisors of different disciplines before this particular penny finally dropped. It’s hard not to wonder how much more we could have achieved had it not been for all the cross-purpose conversations – the root of which was that one small word: ‘structure’.

Some of the most exciting science is happening at the blurred borders of traditional disciplines, and Team Science is spawning an abundance of research. It has even given birth to a new field – the Science of Team Science (SciTS for short) and with this the creation of resources to manage the effectiveness of our collaborations and help us on our way.

Meanwhile, back in the reality of my Team Science PhD, my respected supervisors, some of the brightest in their specialist fields, provide multidisciplinary oversight of my project. Or is all their heated debate just a multidisciplinary “oversight”? Maybe it would be useful to take time out to compile a simple glossary – so at least we all know what we’re talking about!

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