What can interdisciplinary collaborations learn from the science of team science?

Suzi Spitzer (biography)

How can we improve interdisciplinary collaborations? There are many lessons to be learned from the Science of Team Science. The following ten lessons summarize many of the ideas that were shared at the International Science of Team Science Conference in Galveston, Texas, in May 2018.

1. Team up with the right people
On the most basic level, scientists working on teams should be willing to integrate their thoughts with their teammates’ ideas. Participants should also possess a variety of social skills, such as negotiation and social perceptiveness. The most successful teams also encompass a moderate degree of deep-level diversity (values, perspectives, cognitive styles) and include women in leadership roles.

2. Start off on the right note
Take some time before beginning a team task or project to make sure everyone is on the same page. Consider using checklists to ensure that an activity starts (and ends) successfully. For new science teams, a basic checklist could make sure that everyone knows 1) each other, 2) the details of the project, and 3) their role on the team.

3. Practice self-awareness as a leader
You don’t need to be good at all aspects of leadership, but it is important for everyone on a team to understand their own leadership style. Be transparent with others and yourself about where your strengths and weaknesses lie, and surround yourself with teammates who excel in areas you do not.

4. Employ different styles of collaboration to balance efficiency and integration
Sports can help us conceptualize different forms of collaboration. Pooled collaboration involves teammates simultaneously, but separately, contributing to a team task (gymnastics). Sequential collaboration involves a specified order of contribution, where one person’s output becomes the next person’s input, until the team completes the task (football). Reciprocal collaboration involves teammates contributing and communicating back and forth to complete a task (basketball). Science teams should adopt whichever collaborative structure is most appropriate for their project.

5. Go beyond avoiding jargon to develop a shared understanding
Interdisciplinary translation is a process that promotes understanding between scientists who speak different “disciplinary languages.” When working on a team of scientists with different epistemological backgrounds, always bear in mind that each teammate possesses their own “thought world,” or set of perspectives and experiences. When working on interdisciplinary teams, of course scientists must clarify disciplinary terms that others might not know, but less obviously, scientists must also make sure that their shared words have shared meaning (eg., culture, diversity, bias, objective).

6. Use visualizations as translation tools
Science teams can create and discuss interactive visuals to facilitate analytical thinking, knowledge integration, and data exploration. Visualizations, such as conceptual diagrams, can function as boundary objects between teammates who possess different perspectives or expertise. A visualization can also serve as a “great equalizer” because teams can use it to collapse hierarchies and layer information in a way that creates a more egalitarian structure where all ideas are represented.

7. Do not avoid conflict—it’s inevitable… and it can be healthy!
Learn how to express and resolve conflicts effectively. Be specific about the subject of the disagreement and your position on the matter, and express conflict directly to the antagonist, rather than through a third party. Avoid high-intensity behaviors that are offensive (eg., undermining) or defensive, (eg., stonewalling). Healthy debate can actually energize a team because it can be encouraging to collaboratively move towards a solution.

8. Share knowledge and advice
Effective teams have more communication and more equal communication. Social network analyses of successful teams show teammates learning from each other and forming close relationships with several other teammates (high network density and centrality). Avoid the “star model,” which signifies an underlying cultural understanding that there is one lone genius leading the team. This top-down model causes teams to miss out on valuable questioning and input flowing from the bottom. Instead, develop collective cognitive responsibility, where success of the group effort is distributed among members and not concentrated in a single leader.

9. Build in “alone time” to maximize team creativity
The most creative team ideas often do not emerge within a single meeting. Ideation in team science should be longitudinal, and oscillate between convergent and divergent stages. Teammates should have time to converge and deliberate and generate transformative ideas as a group, and then also have an opportunity to reflect on the ideas and let them marinate before the team reconvenes. The interplay of these opportunities discourages teams from settling on “mean (average) ideas” that represent a snapshot agreement, and instead makes ideas and teams stronger and more creative.

10. Think about collaboration as a scientific virtue
Teamwork makes the dream work, but it is not always easy. When the going gets tough, remind yourself that collaboration makes you flourish as a scientist. Think about collaboration as virtuous “scientific friendship.” Virtuous friendship does not stem from utility (they have something we need) or pleasure (we like them), but instead from a drive to be a good person and support others’ greater achievements. Team scientists have an “interest in ‘science-ing’ with others because it contributes to science excellence” and should pride themselves on their determination to “work with other scientists because it makes everyone’s science more awesome.”

Do you have other lessons to share? Are there lessons that you disagree with?

The ideas in this blog post represent a synthesis of the presentations and discussions throughout the duration of the conference, and, in particular, draw from the work of the following individuals: Anita Williams Woolley, James Sallis, Kevin Wooten, Laurie Weingart, Andi Hess, Suresh Bhavnani, Jennifer Cross, Hannah Love, Marshall Poole, Samuel Wilson, and Stephen Crowley.

This blog post is based on a longer version published on the website of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Integration and Application Network (http://ian.umces.edu/blog/2018/05/31/how-to-improve-interdisciplinary-collaborations-lessons-learned-from-scientists-studying-team-science/).

Biography: Suzi Spitzer is a PhD student in the Marine Estuarine Environmental Sciences Graduate Program at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, USA. She works as a Graduate Research Assistant at the Integration & Application Network (IAN) studying science communication and citizen science. She is researching how effective community engagement and science communication can facilitate collaborative learning between scientists and the public within the context of citizen science.

Structure matters: Real-world laboratories as a new type of large-scale research infrastructure

Community member post by Franziska Stelzer, Uwe Schneidewind, Karoline Augenstein and Matthias Wanner

What are real-world laboratories? How can we best grasp their transformative potential and their relationship to transdisciplinary projects and processes? Real-world laboratories are about more than knowledge integration and temporary interventions. They establish spaces for transformation and reflexive learning and are therefore best thought of as large-scale research infrastructure. How can we best get a handle on the structural dimensions of real-word laboratories?

What are real-world laboratories?

Real-world laboratories are a targeted set-up of a research “infrastructure“ or a “space“ in which scientific actors and actors from civil society cooperate in the joint production of knowledge in order to support a more sustainable development of society.

Although such a laboratory establishes a structure, most discussions about real-world laboratories focus on processes of co-design, co-production and co-evaluation of knowledge, as shown in the figure below. Surprisingly, the structural dimension has received little attention in the growing field of literature.

Overcoming structure as the blind spot

We want to raise awareness of the importance of the structural dimension of real-world laboratories, including physical infrastructure as well as interpretative schemes or social norms, as also shown in the figure below. A real-world laboratory can be understood as a structure for nurturing niche development, or a space for experimentation that interacts (and aims at changing) structural conditions at the regime level.

Apart from this theoretical perspective, we want to add a concrete “infrastructural” perspective, as well as a reflexive note on the role of science and researchers. Giddens’ use of the term ‘structure’ helps to emphasize that scientific activity is always based on rules (eg., rules of proper research and use of methods in different disciplines) and resources (eg., funding, laboratories, libraries).

The two key challenges of real-world laboratories are that:

  1. both scientists and civil society actors are involved in the process of knowledge production; and,
  2. knowledge production takes place in real-world environments instead of scientific laboratories.
Franziska Stelzer (biography)


Uwe Schneidewind (biography)


Karoline Augenstein (biography)


Matthias Wanner (biography)


Structural perspective of, and process-oriented view on, real-world laboratories (source: Schneidewind et al., 2018)

How this relates to transdisciplinary processes

Transdisciplinary processes can be understood as a specific form of joint action by scientists and practice actors which serves the collective production of knowledge. The aim is to achieve a better understanding (scientific sphere), as well as activating transformation processes (practice sphere).

Giddens’ understanding of structure highlights the meaning of reflexivity of acting in real-world laboratories and the specific form that the duality of structure takes in these laboratories: scientists refer to rules and resources, ie., the modalities of structuration. At the same time, they try to change them in line with a sustainability-oriented transformation during their interaction with practice partners.

Here we can distinguish the structural level of the real-world laboratory and the process level of transdisciplinary research (also shown in the figure). Actors in a transdisciplinary process rely on the structural elements of the real-world laboratory to establish “agency” in terms of an intentional and conscious management of knowledge production and intervention processes. A structural perspective thus complements the process-oriented view on real-world laboratories. From a structuralist perspective, a real-world laboratory is a research infrastructure in which interpretive schemes and norms as well as allocative and authoritative resources are mobilized for real-world experiments. Simultaneously, these experiments enable reflexivity, re-interpretation and – by influencing the involved structural dimensions – sustainability-oriented structural change.

The structural dimensions of real-world laboratories

Based on our own experience with real-word laboratories, we find that the transdisciplinary research process benefits from a better understanding of the specific modalities of structure that actors draw upon in the context of real-world laboratories (see table below).

Modalities of structuration (based on Giddens 1984) in real-world laboratories (source Schneidewind et al., 2018)

Interpretive schemes are crucial for real-word laboratories because cooperation needs to be built on the basis of a common understanding of key concepts and terms. This applies to the real-word laboratory itself. Using this term in a concrete real-world setting is often problematic because of different understandings.

In addition, to achieve science-practice cooperation is only possible if civil society stakeholders are involved on an equal footing rather than as “test objects” in a laboratory.

Mobilization and commitment of actors requires a minimum of local identity, eg., with regard to the district or suburb, city or region in which the real-word laboratory is embedded. This is why a clear distinction and description of real-word laboratories and their link to locally set definitions and identities is of great importance.

In many real-word laboratories, the level of legitimating rules is sensitive. Are scientific actors and practice actors able to refer to shared norms which justify their interference in concrete city or regional settings? The justification of such a science-driven intrusion into society depends on many factors:

  • regional differences in the affinity towards science,
  • the recognition and reputation of the local scientific institutions; and,
  • the credibility of the scientists involved.

Our experience is that establishing and stabilizing such legitimation structures becomes more important as soon as real-word laboratories start engaging with and changing existing structures of power.

The availability of allocative resources has an immediate effect on real-word laboratories. The scope of an intervention depends on human and financial resources. These define the depth of the initiated transformation processes, including:

  • How many people can be reached by real-word laboratories
  • Is it possible to utilize whole areas, buildings, infrastructures, districts for real-world experiments?
  • Are investment resources available for testing, eg., new forms of regenerative energy supply?

Apart from allocative resources, the scope of real-word laboratories depends on authoritative resources, ie., the possibility of utilizing power in political or organizational governance processes, including:

  • Is it, for example, possible to experiment with road closures to bring forward mobility experiments?
  • Can official communication channels promote real-world experiments?
  • Can a management board motivate members or employees to participate in real-world experiments?

The specific characteristics or, in German, “Eigenart” of each real-word laboratory is determined by the specific interplay of its structural elements. The structural specifics of real-word laboratories have a significant impact on the type of transdisciplinary processes taking place within a real-word laboratory. A clear analytical understanding of the different structural dimensions facilitates the identification of different “patterns” emerging in real-word laboratories – with patterns offering a basic understanding of how experiences made in one particular real-word laboratories can be learned from and transferred to other contexts.

Does this fit with how you think about structure? Are there other dimensions of structure that you think should be included? How has structure played a role in real-world laboratories that you have been part of?

To find out more:
Schneidewind, U., Augenstein, K., Stelzer, F. and Wanner, M. (2018). Structure matters: Real-world laboratories as a new type of large-scale research infrastructure. A framework inspired by Giddens’ Structuration Theory. GAIA – Ecological Perspectives for Science and Society, 27, S1: 12-17. (Online, open access) (DOI): 10.14512/gaia.27.S1.5

See also the supplement: Schneidewind, U., Augenstein, K., Stelzer, F. and Wanner, M. (2018). Compilation of real-world laboratories with different spatial and thematic scopes (examples from Baden-Württemberg, North Rhine-Westphalia, and Switzerland). (Online):
http://www.oekom.de/…Schneidewind__Supplement_Cases.pdf (PDF 180KB)

Giddens, A. (1984). The constitution of society: Outline of the theory of structuration. Polity: Cambridge, UK.

Gross, M. and Krohn, W. (2005). Society as experiment: Sociological foundations for a self-experimental society. History of the Human Sciences, 18, 2: 63–86.

Biography: Franziska Stelzer PhD is a research fellow at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy in Germany. Her main research interests are real-world laboratories in the context of transformative research and societal impact assessment.

Biography: Uwe Schneidewind PhD is president of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy and professor for Sustainable Transition Management at the University of Wuppertal, Germany. He is a member of the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU). His main research interests are transformations to sustainability in their technological, economic, institutional and cultural dimensions and the role of science and science policy for sustainable development.

Biography: Karoline Augenstein PhD is a junior research group leader at the Center for Transformation Research and Sustainability (TransZent) at the University of Wuppertal, Germany. Her main research interests are in sustainability transitions research and transdisciplinary approaches, currently focusing on upscaling strategies for an urban sharing society.

Biography: Matthias Wanner is a research fellow at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, Germany. His main research interests are real-world laboratories, bottom-up approaches and psychological dimensions for societal change.

When are scientists neutral experts or strategic policy makers?

Community member post by Karin Ingold

Karin Ingold (biography)

What roles can science and scientific experts adopt in policymaking? One way of examining this is through the Advocacy Coalition Framework (Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith 1993). This framework highlights that policymaking and the negotiations regarding a political issue—such as reform of the health system, or the introduction of an energy tax on fossil fuels—is dominated by advocacy coalitions in opposition. Advocacy coalitions are groups of actors sharing the same opinion about how a policy should be designed and implemented. Each coalition has its own beliefs and ideologies and each wants to see its preferences translated into policies. Continue reading

Using Ostrom’s social-ecological systems framework to set context for transdisciplinary research: A case study

Community member post by Maria Helena Guimarães

Maria Helena Guimarães (biography)

How can Elinor Ostrom’s social-ecological systems framework help transdisciplinary research? I propose that this framework can provide an understanding of the system in which the transdisciplinary research problem is being co-defined.

Understanding the system is a first step and is necessary for adequate problem framing, engagement of participants, connecting knowledge and structuring the collaboration between researchers and non-academics. It leads to a holistic understanding of the problem or question to be dealt with. It allows the problem framing to start with a fair representation of the issues, values and interests that can influence the research outcomes. It also identifies critical gaps as our case study below illustrates. Continue reading

A guide for interdisciplinary researchers: Adding axiology alongside ontology and epistemology

Community member post by Peter Deane

Peter Deane (biography)

Can philosophical insights be useful for interdisciplinary researchers in extending their thinking about the role of values and knowledge in research? More broadly, can a model or heuristic simplify some of the complexity in understanding how research works?

It’s common for interdisciplinary researchers to consider ontology and epistemology, two major arms of philosophical inquiry into human understanding, but axiology – a third major arm – is oft overlooked.

I start by describing axiology, then detail work by Michael Patterson and Daniel Williams (1998) who place axiology alongside ontology and epistemology. The outcome herein is to cautiously eject and then present a part of their work as a heuristic that may help interdisciplinary researchers to extend understanding on philosophical commitments that underlie research. Continue reading

Using the arts and design to build student creative collaboration capacity

Community member post by Edgar Cardenas

Edgar Cardenas (biography)

How can undergraduate and graduate students be helped to build their interdisciplinary collaboration capacity? In particular, how do they build capacity between the arts and other disciplines?

In 2018, I co-facilitated the annual, 3-day Emerging Creatives Student Summit, an event for approximately 100 undergraduate and graduate students from 26 universities organized by the Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities. Students’ majors ranged from the sciences, engineering, music, arts, and design.

The aim of the summit is to give students an opportunity to collaborate on projects that incorporate creativity and the arts. Continue reading