February 17, 2007
Stanford professor to discuss the ups and downs of 'team science'
By Kendall Madden
The most complex quandaries of science cannot be answered by pure disciplinary research, according to Richard Zare, professor and chair of the Department of Chemistry at Stanford University. Zare is a champion of interdisciplinary research, which will be the subject of his presentation at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) at 3:45 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 17, in San Francisco.
A veteran of collaborative research who has helped Stanford and other institutions implement interdisciplinary initiatives, Zare will give a talk titled "Perspectives on Team Science: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly."
Stanford is at the forefront of interdisciplinary work, he said, pointing to several collaborative campus-wide programs that bridge traditional departmental lines, such as the Woods Institute for the Environment, the Initiative on Human Health and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design. But crossing those disciplinary divides is not always easy, he added.
"Traditional scientific research rewards the rugged individualist, who often triumphs by beating someone else," Zare said. For example, at most universities, tenure is awarded largely on an individual's contributions to a particular field, and many honors in science reward individual work, he noted. Collaborative research, on the other hand, requires a willingness to share credit.
Zare practices what he preaches. Since joining the Stanford faculty in 1977, he has collaborated with numerous research partners, including NASA, the Stanford School of Medicine and the Carnegie Institution. One of his current collaborations involves analyzing the chemical content of stardust from a comet retrieved from a NASA satellite. The results of this research already have provided insights into the early history of the solar system, according to NASA scientists.
"It is possible in collaborative research for the whole to be much greater than the sum of its parts," Zare said. "When done properly, the amount of credit multiplies, and each investigator that is part of the team receives more recognition than working alone."
Tenure and funding
While tenured faculty members often see advantages in doing interdisciplinary research, for junior faculty and graduate students working to establish themselves, collaboration can be a drawback, he added.
Allocation of funds is another potentially contentious issue. Working on interdisciplinary projects sometimes is viewed by the home department as a drain on money, resources and graduate students' time. Overcoming departmental insularity also can be difficult, Zare said. To do so requires initiative and dedication from university administrations to create environments in which interdisciplinary work is rewarded in the form of extra faculty positions and external monies.
Collaboration need not be in competition with the traditional kinds of research, he noted. "You cannot have outstanding interdisciplinary work without outstanding disciplines," Zare explained. "What is needed is a spirit of continuous learning."
Researchers can continue to specialize in their own fields but should not be afraid to team with specialists in other fields, according to Zare, noting that the spirit of collaboration is something that can be taught. If graduate students are given and encouraged to do interdisciplinary research, they will take those skills of communication and experiences of collaboration with them into the workplace, Zare wrote in a chapter on collaborative research for an upcoming publication by the American Chemical Society.
Communication and the alignment of goals between researchers are vital ingredients to making an interdisciplinary project fly, he said. The advent of e-mail, cheap international phone rates and other communications breakthroughs have made it possible for researchers at disparate ends of the globe to collaborate, he wrote. But clear detailing of project goals, how each participant will contribute and what he or she will gain also are essential, he added.
"The excitement of being associated with a well-organized collaboration that is addressing an exceptionally important problem is the most significant benefit," Zare said. And when everything comes together to create new knowledge that could not have been achieved alone, the result is simply beautiful, he said.
Other AAAS panelists scheduled to speak with Zare are Deborah L. Illman of the University of Washington; Diana Rhoten of the Social Science Research Council; Dennis L. Matthews of the National Science Foundation Center for Biophotonics Science and Technology; Denis O. Gray of North Carolina State University; and Bruce Lewenstein of Cornell University.
Kendall Madden is a science-writing intern at Stanford News Service.
Professor Richard Zare will discuss multidisciplinary research at the annual AAAS meeting at 3:45 p.m. Feb. 17 in the Hilton San Francisco Continental Ballroom 2.