Build Your Team

Build Your Team

As research increasingly taps the expertise of multidisciplinary collaborative groups, more scientists are dealing with the challenges of team science.

While the rewards for working collaboratively abound, several factors can pose difficulties that can stymie the best of intentions. Here we highlight the main areas to consider when thinking about participating in team science and give you some tips for smoothing the way.

In addition to the team considerations discussed below, you can get details about the following:

Pros and Cons of Teams

Before deciding whether being part of a team is right for you, consider these benefits:

  • You will likely be exposed to a broader range of ideas, knowledge, and perspectives than you would otherwise.
  • Your research may be better served by high levels of collaboration, e.g., it requires a broad range of expertise or is in a poorly defined area.
  • If you're a junior member of the team, you may gain better access to mentors.
  • Many people report that it's fun and intellectually stimulating to be part of a team.

Know about possible drawbacks and options for dealing with or mitigating them.

  • You will have less autonomy, e.g., you may need the group's approval to proceed in a new research direction.
  • You will need to accept the group's processes and culture, including possibly spending time in team meetings and discussions with team members.
  • You may not be first author on a paper published by the team even though you led a significant part of the research.
  • Peer reviewers may not see you as sufficiently independent to lead a major project.
  • Your institution may not recognize teamwork as indicating sufficient independence for a promotion.
  • A multidisciplinary application might not fit any of the standing study sections in the NIH Center for Scientific Review (CSR).

Drawbacks Explained

Here we expand on a few of the drawbacks listed above with advice on how you might mitigate them.

Sufficient level of independence. Reviewers need to believe that you are sufficiently independent to lead a major project. You may want to think about using the multiple-PI approach to address this problem, but it might not be the best solution for you. 

Institutional recognition. Make sure you aren't compromising your chances of advancement. Even institutions that profess to encourage team science may not actually reward it. Before jumping in, find out: Does your institution have ways to recognize and reward a team effort? Will being part of a team compromise your ability to get tenure?

Study section expertise. None of CSR's standing study sections may have all the expertise required to review your multidisciplinary application.

Review the committee rosters online at CSR Study Section Rosters and see Integrated Review Groups.

If you think the expertise may fall short, in your grant application describe your research in terms that people who aren't in the field can understand.

Even after you weigh all the pros and cons, your personal preference is key. You may feel that either a team or solitary approach simply suits you better. Know yourself before moving ahead.

Forming Your Team

If you decide to go the team route, you’ll need to think about who will join you. As you ponder this, note an important point: Top-notch expertise lies at the heart of your project's feasibility, so expect your peer reviewers to scrutinize your team's credentials closely.

To convince reviewers that your team is able to complete the proposed research, you'll have to figure out the know-how required and make sure you can secure it for each experiment. Chances are your project, like most, will rely on various types of expertise to carry out the different parts of the research.

You may want to consider bringing in co-investigators or even another PI using a multiple PI project approach; read more at Multiple Principal Investigators.

You can also expand your pool of expertise by recruiting expert consultants and collaborators, especially those who are known and respected in the field. You’ll want to secure collaborators to complement, and not overlap with, your expertise and experience.

If you are a new investigator, adding these highly experienced people to your team will not only fill gaps in your expertise and training, but also help build your reviewers' trust in your future success.

Learn more at Consultants, Collaborators, and Subawards.

Though we don't delve into budget planning on this page, be sure to consider personnel costs as we describe at Create a Budget.

Making a Team Click

As you form your team, think about how to keep everything and everyone running smoothly.

For starters, be aware of the social factors—­­like those listed below—that underlie a well-functioning group. Even though a science team is work- and goal-oriented, maintaining positive personal relationships is paramount.

  • Trust
  • Honest discussion
  • Commitment
  • Accountability

A successful team also needs good leadership, team building, a shared vision, ways to give credit, positive communications, and the ability to resolve conflict.

Below we touch on more concepts underlying teamwork and give you some concrete steps to take.

Spell Out Expectations

Probably the most important action a group can take to avoid rude awakenings is to spell out expectations at the outset. Make sure all persons understand their role and responsibilities and agree as a group on expectations.

Because people are more likely to collaborate smoothly when roles and responsibilities are clear, it's a good idea to create a shared vision with a written vision statement. Discuss the vision statement as a group so the whole team sees how the pieces fit together.

Have the group set rules for areas that are ripe for future conflict, such as ownership of data and the order of authors, and make sure all parties agree. Planning ahead puts everyone's expectations on the same page.

Here are some processes a group can put in place before embarking on the research:

  • Set up a publications committee to deal with authoring and have the team agree on the rules.
    • Create a "prenuptial" agreement for major items such as who writes the manuscript and who is first author.
    • Alternatively, just have a well-defined written process.
  • Create rules for other types of credit and honors, such as making public presentations.
  • Address intellectual property and patent issues.

Meet Regularly, Share Knowledge

Effective teams meet regularly to discuss what's going on, including details about their work.

Think about scheduling group activities, which help people see themselves as striving toward a shared goal. These can include weekly lab meetings to talk about results as well as regular journal club meetings and, less frequently, formal seminars by group members.

To promote knowledge sharing, keep the following points in mind.

Encourage constructive criticism. The best collaborations occur when people feel free to speak their minds even when they disagree with their fellow team members.

Build trust. To reach a high level of sharing, group members must show respect for one another. Members need to feel that their colleagues will act for the good of the whole team. People will not share their ideas, knowledge, or data if they feel that others are not being honest or will use shared information against them.

Deal with conflict. Conflict will inevitably arise, and dealing with it is critical.

It helps to think of conflict as a way to expand thinking and a potential source for igniting new research directions. Conversely, ignoring conflict will compromise trust and can undermine the research.

An effective team needs a way for people to bring up sensitive issues as they emerge, so conflict does not fester. Early intervention can help resolve problems before they loom large.

Step Out of Your Comfort Zone

Different perspectives and problem-solving approaches can be a source of creativity but can also generate friction.

If you are thinking about joining or setting up a research team, being open-minded is essential.

Scientists from different disciplines usually have their own perspectives and problem-solving approaches. While these differences can be a source of creativity—even groundbreaking insight—they can also generate friction.

You'll need time and patience to listen to ideas that are at odds with your world view. It helps to be able to see another viewpoint as a horizon-broadening opportunity rather than a barrier you must overcome.

Determine How Much You Want to Work Together

Groups can decide what level of collaboration they desire, depending on the needs of the research and the people involved.

With a moderate level of collaboration, each scientist may work separately on part of a research problem, with results integrated at the end.

At a higher level of collaboration, a team works together to solve problems and share objectives and data. Because they collectively make decisions on the next step, the whole team needs to stay apprised of what's going on.

Build a Convincing Team

Working on a team can be both rewarding and challenging. If you decide to go down this path, learn more by talking to colleagues who have been on teams and reading the following resources:

Questions & Answers

An academic investigator whose organization plans to submit a proposal for an NIH contract has a CRADA on related matters with intramural. The academic investigator asks the intramural collaborator to comment on the proposal and suggests modifying work under the CRADA.  What are some of the considerations involved?

There are a number of aspects to this question.

An academic investigator who wants to collaborate on a grant application or contract proposal must follow the process in the Intramural Scientist Collaboration on Extramural Funded Grants and Contracts SOP for obtaining scientific director approval, Technology Transfer and Intellectual Property Office (TTIPO) review, and in the case of a contract solicitation, the contracting officer's advice. 

The contracting officer will likely want to ensure that intramural expertise and materials are not critical for the performance of the contract's Statement of Work.  If so, they would need to be available to all competitors, as indicated in the contract solicitation (RFP, BAA).

Intramural investigators may not:

  • Write the proposal or receive a salary from the contract unless they intend to terminate NIH employment if a contract is awarded.
  • Serve on peer review for the proposal. 
  • Change the scope of the existing CRADA without the scientific director’s and TTIPO’s review and approval.

An extramural network seeks assistance from an intramural facility to conduct immune assays or manufacture a product.  What are the steps to take?

See the Intramural Scientist Collaboration on Extramural Funded Grants and Contracts SOP for information about obtaining approval and establishing the appropriate mechanism through TTIPO.

Another federal agency seeks to collaborate with the NIAID intramural program.  What steps should an intramural investigator take to establish an interagency agreement (this may or may not involve extramural funded grants or contracts)?

First, obtain approval from your branch and lab chief for the collaboration. Also, as appropriate—see Intramural Scientist Collaboration on Extramural Funded Grants and Contracts SOP.

If funds are involved, follow the procedures in Reviewing and Clearing Inter-Agency Agreements.

What are the procedures for accepting gift funds through a direct award or a suballocation from an extramural organization that is part of a large collaborative consortium, if the intramural investigator is PI of the overarching consortium?

Assuming you, the intramural PI, have already obtained approval for the collaboration, work with your division management and TTIPO to obtain approval to accept funds from the NIAID Office of Science Management and Operations. Follow procedures in the Grants and Other Conditional Gifts for Research and Requesting Approval to Accept Conditional Gifts.

What happens if an intramural-funded contract to manufacture GMP materials or feedstocks ends and the contractor wishes to use unused materials for an extramural project involving a grant?

This is a question for the contracting officer and will depend upon the terms of the contract and whether the unused materials are deliverables or government property or are expected to be placed in a repository for use by the scientific community.  The contractor needs to send a formal letter requesting contracting officer approval for use or disposition of the materials.  The intramural scientist should refer the contractor to the contracting officer.

What kind of clinical research activities can intramural scientists do if they get permission?

  • Play a role on a clinical trial for an extramural grant application?
  • Be involved in protocol development before a competing application is submitted?
  • Be a named investigator with a clinical role (as opposed to laboratory) on a protocol?
  • Be a named investigator on a protocol if a trial won’t be conducted at an intramural site?
  • Be the sole investigator providing specialized clinical expertise required for a protocol?

Yes to all of the above if intramural scientists obtain permission from the intramural section chief, lab chief, and scientific director.

If a protocol will be conducted in the NIH Clinical Center, the intramural scientist needs the NIH Clinical Center director's permission. Follow the approval process in the Intramural Scientist Collaboration on Extramural Funded Grants and Contracts SOP.

Have Questions?

A program officer in your area of science can give you application advice, NIAID's perspective on your research, and confirmation that NIAID will accept your application.

Find contacts and instructions at When to Contact a NIAID Program Officer.

Content last reviewed on August 11, 2016