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What we need to be successful in team science


Much of modern-day science is a 'team-game' – so what are we doing at The Institute of Cancer Research to recognise this?

Posted on 03 December, 2014 by Professor Paul Workman

Much of modern-day science is carried out as a team game. The most complex and challenging research problems are only going to be solved by scientists working together in multidisciplinary teams – each bringing to the table different ideas, skill sets, expertise and ways of working, and in doing so accelerating the transformative impact that breakthrough research can have on knowledge and society.

This modern approach to multidisciplinary research has become known as team science. Many academic research areas – like high-energy physics, genomics and drug discovery – are largely dependent on the science being done in large multidisciplinary teams. Collaborative team science is a growing trend, with success linked to the hard metrics of high quality and impact. The value of multidisciplinary team working is also well established in industry and healthcare.

In my experience, multidisciplinary team science stimulates real innovation. High-quality translational biomedical research that benefits patients is almost impossible – and is certainly inefficient – without working collaboratively in this way.

Team science is not the only way to success in research – there are plenty of examples where breakthroughs were made by smaller groups of scientists and brilliant insights by individuals remain essential – but there is no doubt that working in larger teams is now hugely important to research success.

At the very least, scientists will increasingly need to collaborate with other colleagues working in similar fields elsewhere, or lab-based researchers will be required to collaborate with computational biologists or clinicians. In more complex projects such as drug discovery programmes, team-working approaches that combine multiple disciplines including genetics, informatics, tumour biology, structural biology, pharmacology, medicinal chemistry, clinical science and molecular imaging are absolutely essential to success.

We do a lot of this type of team science research here at The Institute of Cancer Research, London. Our Cancer Research UK Cancer Therapeutics Unit brings together more than 160 research staff from numerous different disciplines operating largely in team science mode. Our new Centre for Cancer Imaging houses 130 imaging researchers from a range of disciplines and is designed to encourage researchers to collaborate on ‘multi-modality’ imaging approaches to solve problems in basic cancer research and therapeutics.

Our Breakthrough Breast Cancer Research Centre also operates substantially in team science mode. Our work in developing precision radiotherapy requires the involvement of medical physicists, imagers and radiation oncologists.

And our clinical scientists and statisticians carry out complex clinical trials of new treatments –  commonly with our partner hospital the Royal Marsden and national and international consortia – which require a whole range of laboratory-based and clinical collaborators, for example carrying out molecular imaging and genome sequencing.

While the advantages of team science are clear, I believe there is scope to significantly enhance the scale and effectiveness of this approach. I’m convinced that there is more we can do at the ICR to encourage and enhance team science and collaborative connectivity between our scientists. Otherwise, we won’t be getting essential new breakthrough treatments to patients as fast as we should. I also feel there is much more that the scientific community as a whole could do to encourage team working, especially across and between different disciplines.

At the ICR, we’ve been asking ourselves lately why team science is not more widespread, and what the barriers are for scientists who would like to be connecting and collaborating more across disciplines. It’s not just us who are interested in these questions – the influential UK Academy of Medical Sciences recently conducted a consultation asking what are the incentives and disincentives for scientists of working together in teams.

Meanwhile there is growing evidence of successful team science initiatives in the US  and internationally. We certainly need to keep up with this and play a bigger role.

In our response to the Academy's consultation, the ICR identified a number of different factors which can combine to discourage team science. At their heart was one unifying point – that organisational structures, cultures, career progression and other reward systems are not optimally aligned in a way that recognises and promotes team science.

A major part of the alignment problem is what I refer to as the ‘academic tail wagging the research dog’. I believe there are many areas where academia needs to change its archaic processes and procedures to support successful team science, rather than passively perpetuating an old-fashioned and less productive way of working.

Most academic organisations have recognition and reward systems which are heavily loaded in favour of the traditional single ‘principal investigator’ (PI) model. They place too much emphasis on being the lead investigator on grants, on outdated first and senior authorship attributions, and even on journal publication itself – at the expense of ensuring that research delivers impact for patients and society. Junior researchers often feel their career progression depends on producing publications that are demonstrably ‘their own’ – because that is how they will be judged – and that sets them off on a path from early in their careers that encourages them to be individually competitive rather than collaborative.

There are other problems too. It can be hard to access the funding needed to stitch multiple teams together into one coherent research programme, and it can be difficult and expensive to provide a common infrastructure – and the ability to share data – across teams and organisations.

But there is a feeling that we are reaching a turning point for team science. It is not only researchers who are recognising that the most complex problems require large multidisciplinary teams. The UK Government and research funders are also beginning to place greater emphasis on collaborative working.

For example, under the Research Excellence Framework, universities have been expected to show that their research can deliver real societal impact – and that kind of translational research inevitably requires that scientists collaborate outside their siloes.

Major funders like Cancer Research UK are beginning to offer specific grant awards designed to encourage researchers from different disciplines, including cancer researchers collaborating with the physical sciences, to work together on the big problems.

I welcome all these initiatives.

And for biomedical research there is no doubt that patients and families, supported by increasingly organised advocate groups, are desperate to see collaborative team working and less unnecessary competition and duplication.

But I think we will only see really dramatic change if the scientific community can fix the system of incentives and rewards that at the moment reinforces the sense of science as an individual activity, rather than a collaborative and multidisciplinary one. Here I suggest some practical steps that employers, funders, scientific journals and individual scientists themselves could do to make sure that team science really takes off.

Research organisations

Institutions need to look at how they support team science. They need to make sure they allocate resources and organise infrastructure in a way that makes team science possible. And we need more training for the specific skills required for team science, including managing people in teams, motivation, communication, milestone setting and conflict resolution. The US National Institutes of Health has produced a useful online toolkit which is worth looking at.

Organisations that conduct academic research also need to do much more to recognise the contributions that individuals make to team science projects. Team science requires strong visionary and organisational leadership but to be successful this leadership must be distributed, with different individuals taking intellectual and scientific responsibility and accountability for particular areas – and given credit for that.

Awards are an important part of how academic achievements are recognised. Prizes that recognise successful team science will raise its visibility and stimulate more collaborative activity.

Promotion and pay award systems, including appraisals, need to specifically recognise collaborative endeavours alongside individual PI success. I think research institutions need to be clear and transparent about how they will do this.

In biomedical science such assessments need to place more emphasis on the contribution that research could make or has made to patient benefit, rather than simply whether it was published in a high-impact journal – important though such publications can be as well.

Team science involving collaboration between academia and industry is very important. But it has extra challenges and can easily go wrong. Managing different cultures and expectations is critical and mobility between the two sectors is helpful. Intellectual property issues should not overly dominate or delay interactions. Technology transfer colleagues should be realistic and enabling. And lawyers should not be overly cautious and get in the way of getting collaboration agreements signed and collaborative projects started.

Funding organisations

I think that funders could provide more opportunity for team science projects using mechanisms like multidisciplinary strategic awards and grand challenges. The Stand up to Cancer Dream Team model has led the way in funding collaborative, multidisciplinary translational cancer research designed to deliver treatments to patients faster. 

Funders must also be less rigid in judging grant applications solely based on a past record of traditional PI success – they need to factor in success in team science alongside the more traditional measure of publication record.

Importantly, team science projects need to be assessed by scientists with successful experience of building and operating multidisciplinary teams.

Funders need to be braver too in providing large and stable packages of financial support for team science projects. Team science projects won’t happen unless all the various disciplines and organisations involved can access aligned resources with an agreed objective. And team science tends to work better on a more stable five-year, rather than a three-year, funding cycle.

The large programme grant that the ICR receives from Cancer Research UK for our Cancer Therapeutics Unit is designed to enable multiple team science-based, multidisciplinary drug discovery projects and has been a very successful model. Responsibility for strategy, decision making and resource allocation lies under my overall discretion as Director but with clearly distributed leadership by my senior scientific colleagues.


Many biomedical research journals seem to be stuck in traditional recognition mode, with its emphasis on first and senior authors. But things are beginning to change. Several publishers, such as Nature journals and PNAS, now provide notes on the individual contributions of each named author on the publication team.

It’s important that journals should provide recognition for specific intellectual or technical inputs to the work in a research publication in this way, so that different researchers can be clearly recognised as the leaders or contributors in their discipline. Adopting that as standard practice would help to send the message that contributions to team working are valued and important. This is an extension of the model for multiple first and corresponding authors and makes individual contributions even more transparent.

The Open Researcher and Contributor ID (ORCID) gives researchers a unique identifier that will be linked to a database including author contributions.

Individual scientists

As individual scientists we should of course not be passive – we can take active steps to shape our careers and the way we work. I’ll close with a few tips for scientists who want to start working more often in team science mode, based on my own personal experience and observing others who do this.

First and foremost I’d recommend choosing to work in an organisation that truly believes in the benefits of team science and organises and aligns itself accordingly – as we do at the ICR. Research is challenging enough already and fighting against the ‘system’ is just too hard – so if you’re current workplace isn’t supportive of a team approach to research, go elsewhere.

Choose a mentor or role model who has been successful in team science and will support and advise you. Make sure you get training in the people, management and leadership skills you need, and try to sit in on other people’s team science project meetings, so you can see how they do it and learn from that. Ideally, try to win or benefit from large team science grants – although no one is pretending that this is easy.

Team science isn’t the answer to everything, nor is it for every scientist, but it will be the solution to many of the biggest, most challenging and most exciting problems in science, including cancer research. We need to do more of it and it is important we get it right.

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