Team science: experiences from the trenches and why being Canadian doesn’t hurt

There are two things that are key to me as a person. One is being Canadian: in fact, if you walk by Byers Hall at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and look up, you might be able to spot the Canadian flag proudly displayed in an east-facing window over 4th Street—that’s my office. The second key thing is being a passionate advocate for team science. In my opinion, it’s the most fun way of doing science, and it helps rapidly narrow in on what’s most important. Being Canadian helps with that, too.

I first realized the value of team science when I published my very first paper as a graduate student. I see it as somewhat of a cautionary tale. Back then, I did everything myself. It was literally a two-author paper—me and the senior author, my advisor. I had to painstakingly learn how to do everything, probably reinventing the wheel a few times over. This certainly slowed down the pace of the work, and I promised myself that going forward, I would always make more efficient use of the vast knowledge the science community has to offer. I think I’ve made good on this promise: I’ve now been a member or leader of over 25 large collaborative research efforts of 8–15 scientists each, including the Cancer Cell Map Initiative, which I launched in 2015 with colleagues at UCSF and the University of California, San Diego. I continue to find this the most rewarding, productive, and high-velocity way to conduct science.

Solving Problems across Scales or Resolutions
I honestly think that scientific research can only benefit from the input of a diverse team. In my experience, the scientific problems that require team science the most, however, are those that need to be solved across different scales or resolutions, often using highly specialized or costly technologies that are unlikely to be available or mastered to the highest form of art in a single lab. For example, the problems I’m interested in stretch across structure, function, and dynamics of pathways, many of which are involved in a variety of disease states. Understanding these systems can require everything from discovery via proteomic and genomic methods, functional validation using CRISPR, to biochemistry and structure determination, sometimes coupled with advanced computational techniques and iteration. In the best-case scenario, we don’t even stop there, but try to push toward translation, requiring yet another set of skills. Often, these studies are done in the most challenging circumstances—with refractory cell types, transient interactions, or flexible/dynamic proteins. Putting together these complex, nuanced pictures of difficult systems would be too much for any single PI or lab. In these cases, team science really comes to the rescue, and shines the brightest.

Frankly, some of the best science is done in bars..

In terms of getting things started, team science can either be serendipitous (as when people come together organically to collaborate) or highly directed (as when large team research efforts are nucleated by a particular problem or collaborative funding mechanisms like U01s or U19s). However, they almost always require some kind of catalyst. Often, people are not talking to one another, and the work is siloed. For this reason, I believe team science rests firmly on a foundation of relationship building. Frankly, some of the best science is done in bars. I’ve had a few great conversations and aha moments there that have led to real progress forward in the field through collaborations. If you don’t like bars, don’t be discouraged, though. Any relaxed atmosphere with other scientists can be just as effective—I am thinking beach walks, eating oysters together, or watching an Edmonton Oilers game. So a key to team science is simply getting the right people in the room together and kind of catalyzing the reaction.

Teams Are Like Families
I am often asked what makes for success in team science. Many organizational leaders and educators more expert than I have written volumes on this topic, but what I’ve found in my personal experience and practice is that it can be boiled down to what makes a functional family. Trust is at the top of the list, followed by good communication, positivity, and generosity—especially in terms of credit and authorship. It’s also important to be a team player and pull your own weight. Team scientists also need to be positive, not negative, which is why I sometimes act as a cheerleader in addition to being a PI (fun outings with the team help keep overall lab spirit high). Also, everyone on the team has to be open to trying new things—sometimes the crazy idea that comes out of cross-pollination of ideas is the one that works. A certain amount of patience is also required. You can’t really fire your aunt—even if she’s a die-hard Calgary Flames fan—and in the same way, I believe you should give team members another chance if they are not pulling their weight or are disrupting the team for whatever reason. In addition to all these factors, it helps to have strong support staff. Team science—particularly across country borders—can require additional paperwork and documentation, for example MOUs. There is also extra administrative effort to manage the large group coordination, which is why I understand my support staff to be part of the team and also encourage admins without a background in science to participate in lab meetings and attend science talks they are interested in.

[E]veryone on the team has to be open to trying new things….

I rely on a bunch of non-science tools to enable team science. To make rapid progress, I’m a firm believer that it’s always better to stop by someone’s office or do a video or phone call than send an email. The human touch matters, and technology can enable that at times. I also travel a great deal, so good old-fashioned airplanes are part of my tool arsenal. I traveled about half of the days last year, mostly in the service of team science spread across about 10 different countries. While being away from the lab (actually also while at UCSF), I rely heavily on my phone to communicate with everyone—often via text, but when possible I prefer a quick call to get on the same page. When writing papers or grant proposals, I am slightly old-fashioned and prefer to read the drafts as print-outs. However, my and my lab’s productivity would take a big hit without collaborative (editing) tools like track-changes, Google Docs, or version control on Dropbox and the like.

So far I’ve painted a rosy picture of team science. But I must admit there are aspects that are not for the faint of heart. Among the biggest challenges is that the underlying culture of science traditionally has rewarded the individual. The Nobel Prize is given to no more than three people, not a giant team. Thus, in a Darwinian way, the system itself selects against team science. This can make it particularly hard for young investigators who have more to lose, but also everything to gain, by partnering with others. I personally believe it’s critical for the established investigators to make a conscious effort toward empowering the younger scientists, in terms of giving credit and authorship. Another challenge is the fear around getting scooped. It can be hard for people to have a comfort level with the wide degree of data sharing that team science involves. In the end, I believe it boils down into taking a “long view” rather than a short-term view. After taking reasonable safeguards (regarding unpublished data, for example) you have to take a leap of faith that no matter what happens, a more open and collaborative approach will be the most rewarding—and that it will ultimately advance the field and help humanity. Of course, that is a scary thing when tenure and funding are on the line. So, it’s a tricky balance, and that can be a lot of responsibility as the leader of such groups.

It’s critical for the established investigators to make a conscious effort toward empowering the younger scientists….

Despite the challenges, however, I believe there is no better way to advance the science of complex problems than team science. It brings out the best and the worst in people at times, but when it works well, it brings rapid progress on difficult problems. And all this while being a lot of fun! So, how does the Canada thing come in (other than in hockey examples)? Well, what do we Canadians have a reputation for? No, not poutine (though it’s tasty). What Canadians, of course, have a reputation for is “being nice.” I’d like to think that if we can all just try to be as Canadian as possible in team science, there is nothing we can’t accomplish.

About the Author:

Nevan J. Krogan is a professor in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology at the University of California, San Francisco.