Tackling Complex Scientific Questions Requires a Team Approach

This blog was also published on the NIH Director’s Blog on July 11, 2022.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen unprecedented, rapid scientific collaboration, as experts around the world in discrete, previously disconnected fields, have found ways to collaborate to face a common cause. For example, physicists helped respiratory specialists understand how virus particles could spread in air, leading to improved mitigation strategies. Specialists in cardiovascular science, neuroscience, immunology, and other fields are now working together to understand and address Long COVID. Over the past two years, we have also seen remarkable international sharing of epidemiological data and information on effects of vaccines.

Science is increasingly a team activity, which is true for many fields, not just biomedicine. The professional diversity of research teams reflects the increased complexity of the questions science is called upon to answer. This is especially obvious in the study of the brain, which is the most complex system known to us.

The NIH’s Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative, with the goal of vastly enhancing neuroscience through new technologies, includes research teams with neuroscientists, engineers, mathematicians, physicists, data scientists, ethicists, and more. Nearly half (47 percent) of grant awards have multiple principal investigators.

Besides the BRAIN Initiative, other multi-institute NIH research projects are applying team science to complex research questions, such as those related to neurodevelopment, addiction, and pain. The Helping to End Addiction Long-term® Initiative, or NIH HEAL Initiative®, created a team-based research framework to advance promising pain therapeutics quickly to clinical testing.

In the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD ) study, which is led by NIDA in close partnership with NIH’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), and other NIH institutes, 21 research centers are collecting behavioral, biospecimen, and neuroimaging data from 11,878 children from age 10 through their teens. Teams led by experts in adolescent psychiatry, developmental psychology, and pediatrics interview participants and their families. These experts then gather a battery of health metrics from psychological, cognitive, sociocultural, and physical assessments, including collection and analysis of various kinds of biospecimens (blood, saliva). Further, experts in biophysics gather information on the structure and function of participants’ brains every two years.

A similar study of young children in the first decade of life beginning with the prenatal period, the HEALthy Brain and Child Development (HBCD) study, supported by HEAL, NIDA, and several other NIH institutes and centers, is now underway at 25 research sites across the country. A range of scientific specialists, similar to that in the ABCD study, is involved in this effort. In this case, they are aided by experts in obstetric care and in infant neuroimaging.

For both of these studies, teams of data scientists validate and curate all the information generated and make it available to researchers across the world. This makes it possible to investigate complex questions such as human neurodevelopmental diversity and the effects of genes and social experiences and their relation to mental health. More than half of the publications using ABCD data have been authored by non-ABCD investigators taking advantage of the open-access format.

Yet, institutions that conduct and fund science—including NIH—have been slow to support and reward collaboration. Because authorship and funding are so important in tenure and promotion decisions at universities, for example, an individual’s contribution to larger, multi-investigator projects on which they may not be the grantee or lead author on a study publication may carry less weight.

For this reason, early-career scientists may be particularly reluctant to collaborate on team projects. Among the recommendations of a 2015 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) report, Enhancing the Effectiveness of Team Science , was that universities and other institutions should find effective ways to give credit for team-based work to assist promotion and tenure committees.

The strongest teams will be diverse in other respects, not just scientific expertise. Besides more actively fostering productive collaborations across disciplines, NIH is making a more concerted effort to promote racial equity and inclusivity in our research workforce, both through the NIH UNITE Initiative and through Institute-specific initiatives like NIDA’s Racial Equity Initiative.

To promote diversity, inclusivity, and accessibility in research, the BRAIN Initiative recently added a requirement in most of its funding opportunity announcements (FOAs) that has applicants include a Plan for Enhancing Diverse Perspectives (PEDP) in the proposed research. The PEDPs are evaluated and scored during the peer review as part of the holistic considerations used to inform funding decisions. These long-overdue measures will not only ensure that NIH-funded science is more diverse, but they are also important steps toward studying and addressing social determinants of health and the health disparities that exist for so many conditions.

Increasingly, scientific discovery is as much about exploring new connections between different kinds of researchers as it is about finding new relationships among different kinds of scientific databases. The challenges before us are great—ending the COVID pandemic, finding a solution to the addiction and overdose crisis, and so many others—and increased collaboration between scientists will give us the greatest chance to successfully overcome these challenges.

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