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A pair of policy experts highlights tension in team science and, inadvertently, in the study of scientific teams

The Strength in Numbers: The New Science of Team Science

Barry Bozeman and Jan Youtie
Princeton University Press
2017
239, pp.
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Science has long been reputed to be the fortress of the lone thinker, but scientists are increasingly challenged to be more collaborative and interdisciplinary in their research. Experts in science policy, Barry Bozeman and Jan Youtie have long studied various aspects of scientific collaboration. After years of focusing on primary research, their new book, The Strength in Numbers, aims to translate their findings for those who are actually doing scientific research. Reading less like an academic article and more like a “how to” guide, it introduces data and anecdotes about the challenges experienced by individuals working in science teams.

Painting in broad brushstrokes, the book begins with an overview of some of the research conducted on science collaboration, providing an idiosyncratic perspective that focuses primarily on science policy. For those unfamiliar with this body of work, this section provides an introduction to an often-inaccessible literature.

More useful for those interested in improving the practice of science is when the authors discuss findings from surveys and interviews with scientists who have had experience working on teams. To frame this, Bozeman and Youtie adapt the traditional “input-process-output” model found in organizational research, using context and people as inputs, collaboration as a process factor, and research effectiveness as an output. We learn that one’s career stage can alter perceptions of collaborations in that, for example, junior colleagues are sometimes expected to accommodate the goals of more senior researchers. We also learn how university-industry relationships can influence team process and outcomes by, for example, producing publishing delays due to intellectual property concerns. Anecdotes bring life to the abstract framework. Even if overly simplistic, this is a useful approach because heuristic categorizations are more easily remembered by stakeholders.

As is clear from the study of science teams, tension is part of group dynamics—the behavioral, emotional, and cognitive processes that emerge when we interact to achieve some goal. But, when stepping back to view this book from a broader perspective, a different set of tensions emerges around how to do research on scientific collaborations.

Methods have varied from qualitative to quantitative, ranging from ethnographies of researchers embedded in centers, to interviews and surveys of scientists, to interventions meant to create changes, to bibliometric and network science approaches. Each serves a purpose, but implicit in Bozeman and Youtie’s book is a kind of framing that dismisses some approaches in favor of others.

ZHONGYONG GAO, THIRD INSTITUTE OF OCEANOGRAPHY, STATE OCEANIC ADMINISTRATION (SOA)

Collaborative efforts like the research being conducted by this international team in the northern Arctic Ocean basin would likely benefit from a clearer understanding of what makes scientific teams successful.

Can social science research on teamwork in other domains be used to understand and improve team effectiveness in the sciences? Bozeman and Youtie equivocate on this. Although they claim that the social sciences have informed their thinking and recommendations, the book offers scant discussion of the vast and diverse literature on teamwork.
The authors also dismiss more than a decade of research conducted by others in the burgeoning field known as the “science of team science” (SciTS). For a more robust discussion of this field, and how social science theory can contribute to our understanding of research collaborations, one should consult the National Academies 2015 report on science team effectiveness.

Perhaps most useful is the concluding chapter, which provides recommendations for managing science collaborations. With a mix of affect-laden verbiage (e.g., tyrannical) and functional processes (e.g., directive), the reader is given five management approaches. But this is all prelude to what is arguably the authors’ main point—providing a description of “consultative collaboration management” (CCM)—which, they argue, is the “gold standard” for managing research collaborations. CCM, a strategy of the authors’ creation, identifies core features that are most likely to support team functioning (e.g., “trust” and “open disagreement”) and successful scientific outcomes (e.g., “effective communication”).

Although CCM provides useful heuristic guidance, calling it the “gold standard” for research collaboration is premature. When viewed from the perspective of a science of team science, the book’s recommendations would not pass muster as evidence. First, Bozeman and Youtie’s data are from a sample of scientists who have worked on teams, not data from a sample of science teams. As such, they do not, and cannot, link aggregated team member attitudes about collaborations with team-level research outcomes. Second, and more important, CCM has not been validated to test its claims across science teams.

The Strength in Numbers succeeds in translating data into one approach for understanding team science. Ultimately, however, any collaboration recommendations worth considering must reflect a more robust evidentiary base.

About the author

The author is in the Department of Philosophy, University of Central Florida, Orlando, FL 32816, USA.