Now is the time for a team-based approach to team science

Professor Anne Ridley FRS FMedSci, served as Chair the Academy of Medical Sciences' 2016 Team Science report which focused on how to improve the recognition of scientists involved in team science projects.

Aligned with the launch of a two year follow-up meeting report, Professor Ridley reflects on the progress made so far and calls for more action to ensure that being part of a scientific team is beneficial to all.

Major advances in science such as the 100,000 genomes project, the development of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, and tackling the Ebola crisis would not have been possible without the expertise and knowledge of diverse teams. Despite the obvious global benefits of team science, employers and funders need to catch up with new ways of working to make sure that the talented people who deliver team science get the credit they deserve and can move up in their academic career.

Time to take action

In the past few years, I am pleased to have seen good progress in supporting the careers of team scientists, however, there is still a long way to go. If we don’t work together now to drive this momentum and maximise the potential for scientific advances then the future of brilliant research, and the researchers who strive to innovate, will be at risk.

How to gain recognition amongst a sea of authors

Scientific publications will likely always exist as a means of sharing research, so it is crucial that the publishing system works for team scientists. Fortunately, publishers are ahead of the curve and have made great progress in attributing recognition to researchers, in part helped by the call to action from the Academy in 2016.

As researchers probe to answer increasingly complex questions, the lists of authors on scientific papers continue to rise as input is sought from broader and more diverse teams. To help individuals gain recognition in what would otherwise be simply a long list of names, specific contributions from a list of 14 can now be assigned to the name of each author. These roles are part of the Contributor Roles Taxonomy (CRediT). Better still, ORCID software allows researchers to automatically pool all of their publications (and roles), grant awards, patents, etc. into a single online profile that clearly defines them. These simple tools are being widely adopted, allowing for researchers to more easily gain individual recognition. 

I congratulate the publishing community’s desire to innovate and to evolve with the needs of researchers. The next steps include encouraging widespread uptake of these recognition systems and modifying CRediT’s roles to span all research disciplines.

Friendly competition

It is no secret that winning grant money to do research helps you to climb up the rungs of the career ladder. To score points and increase the chances of success, the number of first author publications in high impact journals have long been used as a measure of ‘excellence’ when reviewers are assessing grant applications. However, the flawed nature of impact factors is finally being recognised. Pioneering funders are losing interest in impact factors, instead preferring researchers to summarise the impact of their top five (impact factor free) outputs and their personal contributions to these.

Also in support of team science, is the introduction of collaborative funding schemes which assess and fund teams of applicants rather than single principal investigators (PI). It is hoped that the launch of the cross-disciplinary funding body UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) will play a vital role in this space.

Looking to the next few years, it will be important to promote a team science friendly approach of grant assessment to the wider community. We also need to offer training to individuals who sit on grant panels to ensure that they both understand and follow these novel assessment criteria.

A team science career

Employer buy-in is critical for pathing the way to a future where individual team players can easily gain recognition. Skills/technical specialists are key components of research teams but are rarely offered a structured career path comparable to the ‘PI’ track. This means that talented skills specialists are regularly drawn to other sectors such as industry where appropriate career structures are established (frequently gaining a higher salary too!). Here, academia must learn from the way industry develops career structures and offers incentive schemes. Some employers have already taken heed of this advice, developing parallel career frameworks for skills specialists and those on the PI track alike. If rolled-out nationwide, this would dramatically transform technical careers.

To boost the success of team science, researchers need to be trained with certain skills, such as good research culture, how to manage large projects, leadership and fair recognition, and time and budget management. The question is, where should team science training sit within existing training packages, and should funding be the responsibility of employers or funders?

Finally, when making decisions about recruitment and promotion, employers need to follow the steps of funders and move away from high impact publications when assessing excellence.  

Calling for a culture change

Science is often perceived to be led by an individual, with this image propagated by prestigious awards and membership of elite societies. Scientific papers continue to feature coveted first and last author positions to represent leaders - but what about teams? As we undertake more collaborative research, we must reward not only individuals, but also the team players.

The upcoming Research Excellence Framework Assessment (REF2021) is taking much-needed steps to encourage the submission of team-based outputs. This is supportive of a joined-up approach of employers, researchers, funders and publishers to really encourage and promote team science. Right now, huge sector-wide change is possible by targeting the low hanging fruit and continuing to make small but steady changes. Simultaneously we must continue to share the value of team science to gain more widespread buy-in to drive big change.

Now is the time to take a team-based approach to team science. We cannot afford for team scientists to continue to go unrecognised as after all, it is these teams that hold the answers to our greatest research challenges. 


An edited version of this piece appears in Research Fortnight's 'View from the top' section

To read more about the Academy's work on team science visit this page 

Key contacts

Meet the President - Cambridge

Book Now

Meet the President - Edinburgh

Book Now

Mentoring Masterclass - September 2024

Book Now
View more
FB Twitter Instagram Youtube