Navigating Collaborative Grant Research

Collaboration pays, so funding agencies are promoting team research. Running a successful collaboration, especially one with several leaders at multiple sites, means thinking like a CEO: vetting partners, delegating responsibilities, and making tough management decisions. Researchers in multisite, multi-investigator projects need to adjust their grant-writing approach and work culture.

(Excerpted from an article by Chris Tachibana, September 13, 2013, in Science, a journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science)

“Resources are shrinking,” says Alicia Knoedler, associate vice president for research, University of Oklahoma. “So government, industry, and some private funders prefer a collaborative approach.” Getting experts to work together on a problem can be more effective than supporting many separate projects.

Strong Relationships

“My most important advice about collaborations,” says Knoedler, “is to build strong research relationships in advance.” All collaborators must know they are crucial members of the research team or they’ll drop the ball or drop out. And tokenism shows in a proposal, says Knoedler. “It’s obvious to reviewers when people have just been placed on a team and not integrated into it.”

Creating a functional cross-disciplinary research team requires serious vetting. Choose senior investigators because agencies tend to fund people with an established record. Look for team players and select collaborators who are experts in their field and people you can count on to deliver results that integrate into the overall project goals.

Diversity and Unity

Once you have your research dream team, set ground rules, says Barry Bozeman, an Arizona State University professor of public policy who is studying the dos and don’ts of collaborations for the NSF. “People focus on getting the money and don’t worry about other issues until it’s too late,” he says. “Intersector work can be fraught with misunderstanding and managing a heterodox team is hard.” Scientific disciplines differ in their norms about authorship and credit, work culture, and expectations about intellectual property rights and distribution of results. Discuss those issues in advance, says Bozeman. The decision-making process and the budget should be clear as well as the division of labor and timelines, he says. “Let people know what they are expected to do and when.”

Mark Gerstein a professor of biomedical informatics and computer science at Yale University says collaborating lets him contribute to research that has a greater impact than single-laboratory studies. Gerstein recognizes that this work doesn’t fit in the tenure-track groove, though. “Most universities expect you to bring in your own money and publish your own papers, so I do that as well.” Gerstein first puts students and postdocs in his lab on large collaborations, then gives them smaller follow-up projects for their own first-author papers. This strategy has placed lab members in faculty positions around the world. Collaboration has pros and cons, says Gerstein. “Sometimes you have to wait to publish until the consortium is ready, and you can’t always do things the way you want to. But the benefit is being on high-impact publications and highly connected work. For these projects,” he says, “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and I’ve profited from being part of the whole.”