Five Tips for Multi-Institutional Teams

Oct 30, 2023, 09:51 AM by Susan Rojahn

Innovative and impactful research often draws from multiple scientific and scholarly disciplines. In translational science, where researchers look for better ways to translate biomedical discoveries into medicines and other ways to improve health, many different disciplines are needed. Clinicians, bench scientists, data scientists, community engagement experts, and more must work together and learn from one another to best solve complex issues across the translational spectrum. Funding agencies are also keen on cross-disciplinary team science, and many funding opportunities require applicants to propose team-based approaches.

Despite the scientific and financial focus on using team approaches in science, little research is available to support evidence-based practices of forming and running complex scientific teams. Managing the differing priorities, cultures, and processes of multiple disciplines is a challenge for scientists who step out of their silos and combine expertise. Evidence-based insights are needed to guide team formation and performance, especially when multiple institutions are involved.

A new study by researchers at UTMB’s Institute for Translational Sciences (ITS) addresses this gap. With a collection of expertise in ethics, ethnography, and team science, ITS researchers conducted qualitative, semi-structured interviews with a multi-institutional team of translational scientists as they developed a grant proposal to tackle long COVID. The study authors gathered the long COVID team's perspectives and dynamics before and after their grant proposal was submitted. From the results of these interviews, the study authors identified potential best practices for future multi-institutional, cross-disciplinary translational teams. Here are a few highlights of their findings:

  • Keep aims focused. Landing on shared aims can be hard, especially when different disciplines bring different perspectives and priorities. In the study, the long COVID team members noted that draft aims should be fluid during the discussion and debating of early planning, while final aims should be focused on one general topic to create a cohesive and coherent grant proposal.
  • Establish prime point persons. Keep lines of communication open and efficient by identifying a point of contact at each institution who can provide information and direct questions from team members at other institutions. In the study, long COVID team members agreed that a single, knowledgeable contact person at each institution would have been valuable.
  • Staff and leadership need flexibility (and training). Leadership and staff roles may look different in a multi-institutional research team than how they had been previously defined. Leaders must consider staff at other universities who will have varying skills, time available, and work cultures. The learning curve for mastering cross-institutional team dynamics can be steep, and the study authors suggest leadership training for principle investigators and team training for the whole group (e.g., TeamMAPPS).
  • Watch for critical events. Critical events are those with direct effects on outcomes. In the surveys of the long COVID team members, critical events were framed as those that ultimately resulted in the proposal not being funded. Staff and faculty turnover were seen as critical events that disrupted grant development. While critical events may not be preventable, the study authors recommend that team leaders develop situational awareness to anticipate critical events, and when critical events happen, to deal with them as a collective team.
  • Appreciate the differences. Appreciate the fact that your teammates are from different institutions that perform with different modes of operation, bring different expertise and perspectives, and serve different clienteles and communities. The long-COVID team members noted that team leaders need to manage institutional differences early, while also allowing for individuality on the details.  

Study: Kotarba JA, Molldrem S, Smith E, et al. Exploring Team Dynamics During the Development of a  Multi-Institutional Cross-Disciplinary Translational Team: Implications for Potential Best Practices. Journal of Clinical and Translational Science. Published online October 2, 2023.

The study referenced was supported by UTMB’s Institute for Translational Sciences, which is supported in part by a Clinical and Translational Science Award from the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences at the National Institutes of Health (UL1 TR001439). The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.