Seven tips for developing large-scale cross-disciplinary research proposals

By Gemma Jiang, Jin Wen and Simi Hoque

authors_gemma-jiang_jin-wen_simi-hoque
1. Gemma Jiang (biography)
2. Jin Wen (biography)
3. Simi Hoque (biography)

What are the key ingredients for successfully developing large-scale cross-disciplinary research proposals? What’s required for a team to successfully work together at the proposal development stage?

Here we provide seven lessons based on our experience, divided into:

  • team characteristics
  • structuring the grant proposal writing process.

Team characteristics

Lesson 1: Invite a mix of new blood and established experience.
It is useful to have team members at various stages of their careers, as well as researchers who have worked together previously and those who have never met before. It can work well to have clusters of researchers who have worked intensively within the cluster, but who are new to each other across clusters.

Lesson 2: Foster convergence readiness.
Prior experience in cross-disciplinary collaboration can enhance the dynamics of preparing a proposal by combining deep expertise in a discipline with the ability to see how the pieces fit together.

Lesson 3: Encourage open questioning.
One of the main difficulties with cross-disciplinary collaboration is the longer runway required for takeoff. It takes time to understand other disciplines and develop trusting relationships. This involves listening generously and asking a lot of questions. In addition, specialized disciplinary languages do not translate across all fields, so plain language is needed.

To achieve such an environment, we recruit team members with confidence but without big egos. Confidence engenders the security needed to be vulnerable and ask questions, as well as to be comfortable in the unknown. On the other hand, big egos can result in repression of other team members’ perspectives.

Structuring the grant proposal writing process

Lesson 4: Use a mixture of ways to communicate and work together.
Big group conversations are important for coherence, but small working groups are more effective at getting things done. Share the ideas generated in small groups with regular updates and survey questions. In addition, cross-pollinate with boundary-spanners across teams, who may be the leaders of the sub-teams, or individuals liaising across two or more sub-teams.

Further, actively weave together thinking and writing. While it can be tempting (and easy) to spend a lot of time talking with each other, writing is a powerful way of communicating and brings much needed clarity to the thinking process.

Lesson 5: Shift the academic culture.
The collaboration-driven convergence culture stands in sharp contrast to traditional academic culture mired in competition and silos. Researchers need to recognize the interdependence between their success, their colleagues’ success, and the success of the overall research team.

Women have an important role to play in shifting the academic culture and fostering collaboration, sharing, and connecting.

Lesson 6: Allow plenty of time for team development.
Teams need time to form, storm, norm, and finally perform. Take into account the fact that everyone has multiple obligations to juggle, as well as needing downtime at the end of the year and for vacations.

Lesson 7: Plan for research implementation and broader impact.
Key to research making a difference is long-term partnerships with those who are likely to use the research. For instance, research seeking to contribute to racial equity will only be effective if the researchers already have relevant long-term partnerships, for example with minority-serving institutions.

Conclusion

This blog post is based on our recent experience developing a proposal for the US National Science Foundation’s Sustainable Regional Systems-Research Networks solicitation. Our five-year $15 million project involved ten academic institutes, with a wide spectrum of disciplines, and 30 other stakeholder groups including state and city governments, non-governmental organizations, and industry partners.

What have your experiences been with developing proposals for large-scale cross-disciplinary research projects? What lessons have you have learnt? What roses (strengths), buds (potential) and thorns (challenges) could you share with the community?

Biography: Gemma Jiang PhD is the Founding Director of the Organizational Innovation Lab in the Swanson School of Engineering, as well as the founding host of the Pitt u.lab hub and the Adaptive Space at the University of Pittsburgh in the USA. She applies complexity leadership theory, social network analysis, and a suite of facilitation methods to enable transdisciplinary teams to converge upon solutions for challenges of societal importance.

Biography: Jin Wen PhD is a Professor in the Department of Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering at Drexel University in Philadelphia, USA. She has about twenty-years of experience in the sustainable building field and has taken several leadership roles in directing large scale collaborative research projects.

Biography: Simi Hoque PhD is an associate professor in Architectural Engineering at Drexel University in Philadelphia, USA. Her expertise is in sustainable building design and computational modeling to characterize urban resilience. She is deeply invested in promoting women and girls in engineering.

12 thoughts on “Seven tips for developing large-scale cross-disciplinary research proposals”

  1. I really appreciate the lesson on “invite a mix of new blood and established experience”. In hindsight, our experience with research consortia showed how people grow over time: exploring new interests, acquiring new responsibilities, and taking on new roles. Those who start out as early career researchers can thrive within teams to become more prominent and exercise leadership. We need to intentionally support career growth over the life of a collaboration, rather than assume someone will necessarily stay in the role they have in year one.

    Reply
    • Hi, Bruce, I really appreciate your insights on the dynamic nature of team roles. I completely agree with that. I first learned of this concept in the book: Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux, and have been fascinated by it. I believe organizational structures overall could become more flexible to not only accommodate growth, but also lead and enable growth. Would you like to share some practical experiences on how you were able to do that? I am so curious to learn. From my personal experience, I created an “apprentice facilitator” program to develop capacity for facilitation in our teams. It could be an example I give. I am writing a blog post on this and will share soon.

      Reply
      • Hi Gemma, I would have loved to be more intentional, yet it occurred more organically as a result of the number of people and activities that were involved. Yet one way we cultivated these opportunities was through an ‘opportunities and synergy fund’ which provided additional funding for additional sub projects seizing emergent ideas for collaboration among the projects.

        To take just one example, a network consolidated around women’s agency across climate hotspots, which involved a few experienced researchers and a number of early-career ones. The best source to read is the ‘behind the scene’ comment by Chandni Singh https://socialsciences.nature.com/posts/56886-synthesising-qualitative-data-across-climate-hotspots-experiments-with-comparative-analysis

        In short, we intentionally kept some flexibility in the budget to respond to such opportunities that we could not foresee from the beginning of the research program.

        Reply
        • Dear Bruce, thank you for sharing the ‘opportunities and synergy fund’. As a matter of fact, within a US government funded convergence research project I am working on, my team members and I were just having the conversation about how to accommodate the “emergent projects” in our budget. The ‘opportunities and synergy fund’ sounds like a great solution. I would love to learn more about how it is implemented.

          Reply
          • Happy to discuss further. The text below is from the section “Offer flexibility and funding at multiple levels” in a longer paper on this experience (DOI doi/10.1007/s10113-020-01702-w).

            “At the programme level, 9% of the overall budget was set aside for the broad purpose of “research integration”. The precise purpose and use of this budget were refined during programme implementation. The programme management committee decided how to allocate these funds, responding flexibly to new or unforeseen opportunities and fostering synergy among the four research consortia. In general, these funds created different collaborative spaces that convened participants from different consortia, either through ad hoc working groups or through successful bids to periodic calls for proposals open to the broader set of CARIAA participants. Specific efforts that were supported included stakeholder engagement platforms to reach national policy audiences in five countries where more than one consortium was present; communities of practice related to economics, research uptake, and systematic review; and collaborative subprojects that brought together consortia results on migration, gender, and adaptation pathways.”

            Reply
  2. Thanks a lot for this post, it was really important to be divided into discussing the characteristics of team members and guidelines that produce successful interdisciplinary proposal.

    Indeed, the personal attributes of team members are very important for “Teams to form, storm, norm, and finally perform”.

    I would like to add that PI has an important role to convert malicious envy among team members to benign one. Envy is working against effective collaboration and will result in pride, egos and stratification between disciplines. Managing multidisciplinary team is very difficult and require extensive training from an expert who can teach using examples and case studies.

    I really like the following article which addresses this issue and believe me, no team member will like to talk about this important issue despite it can be destructive to their collaboration.
    https://dzone.com/articles/envy-and-collaboration

    Finally, the contributory expertise might also let other team members with interactional and tacit expertise feel inferior, despite the fact that they all are important to writing effective grant proposal because of the different knowledge and perspectives that they have about problem scoping and framing

    Reply
    • Dear Tarek,

      Thank you so much for bringing the topic of “envy” to my radar. I really enjoyed the article you linked, and its categorization of “malicious” versus “benign” envy. I have been thinking about “absolute value” versus “relative value”. Behavioral economists argue that we only derive value through comparison (See book Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely). I think that is the root of envy: by comparing ourselves against others. But what if we compare ourselves against our highest future potential? That is what Peter Senge advocates in his Fifth Discipline: set an internal and future oriented reference point. How might team leaders foster a culture that stops envy at its root? Fascinating questions. Any further thoughts?

      Reply
      • Dear Gemma,

        The essential role of the PI is to motivate, give instructions/frameworks and monitor performance of team members. However, s/he must also be careful to observe and monitor the level of competition among the members because it will have negative impact on the cooperative spirit and will increase malicious jealousy and envy.

        I think that you can also classify competition as malicious and benign and when PI distribute the tasks correctly and acknowledge each individual’s ability to contribute to the project, minimize the presence of similar specialties, eliminate the bad crops and re-seed new one when necessary, justify the unequal distribution of incentives at the beginning, provide social events and care about the personal life crisis of each member, I think this will minimize malicious envy and foster collaboration.

        I have seen myself how much malicious envy can be destructive to teams in multiple countries around the world, especially in Asia, and the organizations had to establish strict rules and policies to tackle this problem and that was in the case of similar disciplines. I can imagine that this problem will have larger effect on dissimilar disciplines.

        The feedback loop between interdisciplinary cooperation, envy and competition can have vicious and virtuous cycle and it is solely depends on the PI of the project and if s/he is ready to lead and interdisciplinary team or not!

        Thanks a lot for your feedback on my reply and surely we all need to look out for our future self and keep developing our knowledge and performance and that is why I keep reading the posts published in this amazing blog.

        Reply
        • Dear Tarek, thank you for your continued insights! I have come to see, through your sharing, that cooperation, envy and competition can happen at the intersection of leadership (leading people), and project management (managing tasks). Leadership and management are closely related, but also very different. The PI needs to pay attention to both in order to tackle the challenges you posed. I suspect most PIs pay more attention to project and task management than developing people’s capacity. What do you think?

          Reply
          • Dear Gemma,

            You actually put it in very beautiful frame, yes I totally agree with you!

            You absolutely cannot get rid of envious souls, it can only be managed by PI and even if PI has leadership skills, s/he might not able to manage some emotions such as anger, hate, rivalry, and envy, etc which can be destructive to team cooperation. That is why, women are good at considering both aspects and they most of the time are successful as principal investigators for an interdisciplinary projects. I think that men only care about the outcome of the project but fewer consider establishing good and long-lasting relationship with their team members. Developing an interactive leadership that stimulates more collaborative orientation rather than emphasizing on who is more important to the project, is urgently called for inter/ trans-disciplinary cooperation.

            I am really talking based on a previous experiences and this is not my area of expertise and if you find it useful, so Gabriele Bammer was right when she told us that contributory expertise can get useful knowledge and inspired idea from non-specialists in their fields. I am so happy that I have this conversation with you.

            Reply

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