The Challenge of Collaboration and Interdisciplinary Teams

During non-crisis times, scientific research is conducted by individual principal investigators and/or teams of scientists. Research teams are often multi-institutional and in most cases, researchers collaborate with colleagues they have worked with in the past or with whom they have some pre-existing relationship. New collaborations are often formed through the long-term exchange of knowledge and ideas at regularly scheduled workshops, academic conferences, and peer-reviewed publications.

Fig. 3.4 A framework for the coupled human-natural system, showing the interconnectedness of critical resources and the social system is useful for guiding science during environmental crises (Adapted from Machlis et al. 1997)

By necessity, science during crisis is also often conducted by multidisciplinary teams where these teams are often formed quickly in response to the event. For environmental crises, members may represent fields ranging from the physical and natural sciences to human biology and social sciences. These teams are also multi-institutional and include scientists from the academic, government, non-profit, and private sectors. In many cases, the individuals in crisis science teams have not previously worked together before (see Fig. 3.5). Examples include the nuclear physics theorists and weapons engineers of Manhattan Project during WWII, teams of engineers from manufacturer plants and universities working together to solve the Apollo 13 crisis, and academic and federal geoscientists working with oil industry engineers to address the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The urgency of the task, compression of time available for research, and lack of previous collaboration can add additional challenges in communication among scientists, as well as issues of trust and collaboration styles. At the same time, a shared and critical mission can promote cooperative behavior and remove traditional barriers to collaboration by establishing common ground, focus upon mission rather than process, and recognition of expertise rather than representation of organizations, institutions, and academic pedigree or rank.

Fig. 3.5 Schematic collaboration patterns of science teams during non-crisis and crisis times. On the left is a schematic network diagram of a science team operating during non-crisis times. Nodes represent individual scientists and links represent previous collaboration (e.g., via co-investigators on a grant proposal or co-authoring a publication). Members of this team have worked with one another before. On the right is a schematic of a crisis science team, showing that only a few of the members have previously collaborated (After Börner 2010, 2011)

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