T H E   N I H   C A T A L Y S T     J U L Y  –  A U G U S T   2003




Michael Gottesman

On June 23–24, 2003, the Bioengineering Consortium (BECON) at NIH held a symposium entitled "Catalyzing Team Science." This theme reflected the NIH Director’s Roadmap focus on building multidisciplinary teams of the future. As a participant, I was asked to demonstrate ways in which the NIH intramural program has fostered team approaches to research. Team science has always been a strength at NIH, but recently we have developed several strategies for encouraging this approach.

Centers-based Co-localization of Research Activities

NIH has 21 institutes and centers with intramural programs. As in academia, there is a tendency for each of these programs to develop its own resources, reducing the likelihood of interaction. To encourage trans-NIH team building, we have developed laboratory centers that are theme-oriented and co-locate scientists by research interests rather than administrative affiliation.

Examples include the Clinical Research Center, the in vivo Imaging Center, the Vaccine Research Center, the Porter Neuroscience Center (under construction), a Musculoskeletal Center (in planning), and a center focusing on the use of animal models to study disease (under discussion). This geographic co-location is based on ample evidence that interactions among scientists fall off dramatically as distance increases.

Because it is not always feasible to group scientists by research interest, NIH has also encouraged development of more virtual faculties of scientists who share research interests. Currently, there are close to 100 such special interest groups in the intramural program, including cross-cutting disciplines such as genetics, molecular biology and biochemistry, immunology, neuroscience, structural biology, cell biology, clinical research, and groups interested in specific model systems and technical approaches. This issue of the Catalyst includes the current list of these special interest groups.

Although it is the exception, rather than the rule at NIH, we are experimenting with joint appointments of individuals in two administrative organizations to encourage team science. Because of administrative oversight requirements, there is usually a primary appointment and a courtesy appointment, but the latter may be accompanied by commitment of resources and personnel to help build a team.

Recognition of Individual Accomplishment Within a Team

Recognizing individual team members is perhaps the most difficult problem facing academic and government institutions. One approach at NIH is the development of the Staff Scientist and Staff Clinician positions. These are accomplished scientists who do not control independent resources, but who support important NIH programs. Examples can be found in the National Center for Biotechnology Information in the National Library of Medicine, which is staffed primarily by Staff Scientists who work together to support bioinformatics at NIH, including PubMed and GenBank.

Staff Scientists are important team members in vaccine development programs at NIH, and Staff Clinicians make possible most of the groundbreaking clinical research in our Clinical Center. Staff Scientists are selected by individual ICs with overall institutional quality control and an institutional commitment to continue to employ the individual if performance is outstanding, even if a program disbands. In teams formed with Staff Scientists, there is at least one individual who is a tenured scientist who makes important programmatic decisions for the team.

NIH intramural scientists who control independent resources begin on a tenure track, and after six years (for laboratory-based scientists) or eight years (for clinical and population-based-research investigators), they are considered for tenure. At the NIH, tenure implies a permanent research position with resources subject to quadrennial outside review. The tenure decision at NIH, as at universities, is made by a central committee of peers, based on evidence of innovative, independent, and influential science.

In general, tenure-track scientists are encouraged to establish their independence, and often this is interpreted to mean that they should not publish extensively with their senior colleagues and mentors. This view is a clear disincentive to building team science (as it is in other academic settings). Approaches to deal with this problem include emphasizing recognition of the important contributions of each member of a team through presentations at scientific meetings, publishing as principal author in journals that are specific to the person’s discipline, and extensively interacting with senior scientists in the person’s field who can then appropriately attribute contributions to the team. Still, our tenure committees will need to be educated to recognize the critical nature of individual team members’ contributions. For additional discussion of this critical issue, please see July-August 1998 Catalyst

Other Resources Used To Promote Team Science

In addition to geographic co-location of scientists, which frequently requires significant investment of new resources, there are other resources that have been used at NIH to encourage team approaches. Small pools of funds, distributed on a competitive basis, encourage interaction of individual scientists with complementary interests. For example, for the past several years, NIH has sponsored "Bench-to-Bedside" awards, which support projects that pair lab-based scientists with more clinically oriented scientists to create new translational research.

In addition, there is a fund to support intramural AIDS-targeted research (IATAP), with the specific goal of encouraging structural biologists to work with cell and molecular biologists to address HIV-related research problems.

Recently, in response to requests from the general scientific community, a stem cell characterization facility was established at the NIH to bring together experts in the biology and biotechnology of stem cells. Historically, NIH has supported several such central resources. These allow individual scientists to tap experts in many different fields. Examples include the Bioengineering and Physical Sciences Program, the Center for Information Technology, and the Veterinary Resources Program (see the July-August 2001 Catalyst).

Education or Training Experiences that Promote Team Science

Graduate education frequently emphasizes individual scholarship with a sharp focus on a single important research problem. Team science requires broad knowledge of multiple disciplines so that team members can communicate effectively. At NIH, where many programs require interaction of people with backgrounds in multiple disciplines, it is often necessary to train postdoctoral fellows to function effectively in such teams. Training may include coursework in disciplines such as bioinformatics, clinical research, and integrative biology, as well as mentor-ship at the laboratory level.

NIH has recently initiated a Graduate Partnership Program in which graduate students interested in emerging disciplines matriculate at universities but do most of their research at NIH. Some of these programs involve co-mentoring in which an NIH scientist and a university faculty member with complementary skills work together with a single graduate student. We have recently established a joint fellowship program with NIST that emphasizes co-mentoring in biology and physical sciences.

If you have other ideas to encourage team science at NIH, please send a note to me.

—Michael Gottesman
Deputy Director for Intramural Research


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