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Team science: Solving knotty puzzles

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by Cancer Research UK | Research Feature

10 August 2016

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Team science


It’s a scientific truism that one of the best ways to have new and innovative ideas is by talking to other people – it’s the way that research has worked for centuries.

At CRUK, we’re committed to helping our scientists make the connections that will stimulate their thinking, and part of this commitment is to support new methods of driving collaboration and networking. We also have a strategic imperative to support team science effectively: put simply, some projects are just too big or complicated to be run any other way.

Effective team science isn’t easy – it requires a commitment to collaboration, which in turn means understanding how to interact with a sometimes highly disparate group of researchers, who may be spread across the world and across many disciplines. And it’s becoming clear that the existing career structures and methods of recognition are not well-adapted for team science – funding bodies, including CRUK, have acknowledged that they need to make some fundamental changes to how they review and reward scientific endeavour so that collaboration is more attractive to the best researchers.

A knotty puzzle may hold a scientist up for a century, when it may be that a colleague has the solution already and is not even aware of the puzzle that it might solve.

—Isaac Asimov, The Robots of Dawn

David Scott, Director of Discovery Research and Centres at CRUK, is very clear that the two concepts of team and individual science are not mutually exclusive: “It’s really important that people know CRUK will always be interested in funding individuals with fantastic ideas,” he says, “but there’s a place for team science too, and you can be really successful doing both.” And there’s a mounting body of data confirming that successful collaboration is the key to individual advancement – papers featuring multi-lab collaborations are cited more frequently than single lab publications, and making the right ties to other researchers can significantly boost your career.

CRUK is an old hand at some varieties of collaboration. “Team science is the current buzzword, but we have a history of great collaborative work. Our Institutes are brilliant at it, and the early genomics projects like genome-wide association studies are great examples too,” David says. “And of course, clinical trials and drug discovery couldn’t run without collaboration.”

Accelerating translation

Our UK-wide Centres network is an example of our established commitment to collaborative translational science. But for this to be a network of excellence on a global stage we need the network to be more than the sum of its parts: in addition to infrastructure funding to support individual Centres, we’ve introduced Centres’ Network Accelerator Awards, first awarded in 2015, which aim to drive increased collaboration across the network, sharing expertise and platforms so researchers can access the resources they need for particular projects. Catrin Pritchard, whose CRUK Leicester Centre received £1.7 million to better integrate structural biology into drug development, says that the centres involved in the award are already seeing the benefits: “Within the Centres’ Network, there were drug discovery groups without the capacity for structural studies who previously had to make ad hoc arrangements”, she says. “But now we’re combining the expertise of all the different locations, so when you have an interesting target, you already have access to the right people.” The first of the award’s annual conferences was a really positive experience, Catrin continues: “Everybody shared technical expertise on tackling difficult targets; we have one new structure of a target that is already informing development of an inhibitor thanks to interactions within the network”.

As well as infrastructure support, CRUK is keen to drive the formation of new communities, and we know that the best way to do this is getting people together at conferences. Community building is going to be particularly important for our early detection initiative, because it involves so many different disciplines who traditionally haven’t worked together. The first Early Detection conference, part of a partnership between CRUK and the Knight Institute at Oregon Health and Sciences University, is an important milestone. Ambition is high, as the Knight Institute’s Sara Courtneidge, the conference’s co-organiser, acknowledges: “Our first conference includes global leaders in early detection, as well as outstanding scientists and thought leaders in other aspects of cancer research and bioengineering, from the US, Canada, Europe, and Asia,” she says. “We want to explore the current state of the early detection field, to investigate in depth the biology of cancer progression and to learn about state-of-the-art detection approaches. A major outcome of the conference will be to author a ‘white paper’ outlining the priorities for driving the field forward.”

The consummate collaborator

Prof Freddie HamdyFreddie Hamdy is Nuffield Professor of Surgery at Oxford University, and has vast experience of coordinating clinical trials and multidisciplinary grants.

What are your tips for running a consortium?

Never sit at the head of the table, sit at a round table. You need the ability to engage people but if you start to be a dictator it doesn’t work. There’s a paradox – you need to make decisions and lead, but you can’t be a dictator. It’s about hand picking people and empowering them. You must also guarantee credit goes to the right people for the right reasons – ownership of a paper, inclusivity, having people named as PIs – that all makes a huge difference. So you steer but you give everyone the place they deserve.

If you want to be in a collaboration but not lead it, what should you do?

It’s reverse engineering. If you have a great idea, look around to see who has experience and credibility in the field, and a track record of making things work. Then you need to convince them they can pull a network together better than you could – that’s the hard bit!

Do you have any advice about writing a joint application?

Keep your eye on the target. The temptation to digress is massive but you need to stay focused. The main idea has to be simple and compelling and understandable to everyone. Get your collaborators to write their own part of the application, and do the sticking plaster process at the end to make sure there’s a coherent story, although I can’t pretend that bit’s easy! Suddenly, and it could be only two weeks before the deadline, you turn a corner, something clicks, and you know you’ve got it.

Embedding a collaborative mindset

Sandpit WorkshopOne challenge is to get people thinking collaboratively early in their careers, and one way we’re encouraging this is through sandpit workshops. Targeted at early career researchers, moderated by more senior scientists, and featuring real-time peer review and instant decisions, they’ve proved extremely popular. Each workshop has a set theme, and comprises the iterative development of projects by the scientists and invited participants from the outside world – digital marketers, virtual reality specialists and community groups have all featured in recent events. The aim is to develop ideas that are edgy and would not be supported by any of CRUK’s other funding streams. Projects receive frank feedback from fellow participants as they evolve into their final forms, and at the end, if they’re considered interesting enough, they’re funded on the spot.

Sandpit workshops could work for all kinds of science, says Abi Fisher, a lecturer in physical activity at UCL, who has attended two so far: “If you want to come up with new ideas you need the headspace, and you rarely get that at work where you’re constantly attending meetings and being bombarded with emails. Everyone could benefit from this kind of workshop – you see people getting really excited about ideas, and it’s great to be able to access fast-track funding to make the ideas into reality.”

Dr Abi FisherDr Abi Fisher is a Lecturer in Physical Activity and Health at UCL who has attended two innovation sandpit workshops, one as a participant and one as a subject guide, and now leads a multidisciplinary team from the workshop

What happens at a sandpit workshop?

They run over three days – the first day is for icebreaking, with days two and three for formulating ideas. You come up with ideas in groups, pitch them, get real time feedback and then pitch again. You can be in several different groupings if you want to be. At any time you can pull out of a group or start your own, and that happens quite often – the groups are pretty fluid to begin with. On the last day you make your final group pitch to the panel and they decide on the spot whether you’re funded or not.

How was it to be a participant?

I was interested in doing something with novel technology but I didn’t know what. On the first night I was in the bar talking to other participants about how we could make cancer prevention behaviour interesting to young people. So we started talking about virtual reality. I was paired up with a digital ethnographer for one of the activities, and when I mentioned the virtual reality idea, she said she knew someone who had a virtual reality studio and that the technology was already there. So it went from there. We got funding, and there’s now a team of six of us who’ve been working on the project for a year.

As a subject coach, is there a risk that your advice can push people to pitch more conservative projects?

No. You’re told very early on to encourage people to think big and risky. It has to be something challenging and difficult that wouldn’t be funded by CRUK through a standard funding stream – either a novel technology or in a really hard to reach group.

What’s your overall verdict on being involved in the workshops?

It was a great experience – a really good way to get fast track funding and real time peer review.

Crossing discipline boundaries

So what else can CRUK offer scientists with an appetite for collaboration? Our Multidisciplinary Project Awards, launched in 2014, have been extremely popular, giving scientists the opportunity to come up with new, cross-disciplinary ways to tackle problems in cancer. David Scott feels they illustrate something that CRUK should do more of – exploring unknown scientific worlds: “In the past we haven’t been great at reaching people we don’t already know, and obviously, many in the physics and engineering community fall into that category,” he says. “What we’ve managed to do with the multidisciplinary awards, co-funded with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), is to target these new communities.” David’s keen on further activities, retaining the EPSRC as a valued partner: “We should be talking with the community at meetings they already hold,” he says. “We need cancer ambassadors, who’ll go out and share the challenges in cancer research with other fields, and spark their interest.”

The Multidisciplinary Project Award has highlighted another common problem that crossover research faces: the lack of referees qualified to assess the scientific merits of the proposal as a whole. David explains this is an ongoing issue: “You’re trying to review the totality of the project,” he says. “But there’s a tendency that you review the physics, and review the biology, pick holes in both and then fund nothing!” Jamie Meredith, Head of Discovery Research Funding at CRUK, offers a tip for how to pitch your project correctly: “Make sure that the proposal is genuinely co-written, and that the overall aims are stated clearly enough to convince anyone of their importance”, he suggests. “You need to emphasise that even if the approaches are not particularly original, if they’re put together they can be transformational.”

Biology meets maths

Two researchers who’ve successfully bridged the interdisciplinary divide are Rob Insall, a cell biologist at the CRUK Beatson Institute in Glasgow, and John Mackenzie, a mathematician at Strathclyde University. For the last few years they’ve been collaborating on developing computational models of eukaryotic cell migration and chemotaxis. “Rob contacted the mathematics department here at Strathclyde back in 2008 looking for possible collaborators” says John. “Although I had no previous experience of mathematical modelling in biology, I was fascinated by Rob’s movies of cell chemotaxis. Putting together even a relatively simple computational model would require experience of solving differential equation models on time dependent domains and this was an area I had some background in.” Things went well, he continues: “As a team we worked well and made rapid progress with an initial model that captured many aspects of real cell behaviour in a relatively simple system.” Rob agrees they were a good partnership: “We’re both really interested in the other’s discipline (even if we don’t know enough to do it ourselves…). This makes it easier to cross the divide – I love what the maths can do, and John is always happier when his models say something new about biology. It makes it much more fun – we feed off one another’s enthusiasm.”

Going global

Our Multidisciplinary Project Awards are aimed at bringing fields together in the UK, but we’ve also been expanding our remit geographically. In population research, we’ve been addressing the challenge of working across geographical boundaries with our new Catalyst Award. The award was developed in consultation with the community as Fiona Reddington, Head of Population, Prevention and Behavioural Research at CRUK, explains: “Groups in the UK told us that if we wanted to be internationally competitive, we needed to provide researchers with ‘glue money’ that would allow them to work as a cohesive whole. They said that getting the top groups in the world to combine their cohorts and expertise could be transformative, but there was no funding stream that fitted the remit.”

Each of the Catalyst Awards must be shared between at least three institutions, and will be funded for up to £5 million over five years. There’s been a lot of interest – the 2016 call received applications from all over the world, which were shortlisted to nine expressions of interest. Applicants had the opportunity to present their ideas to one another at a joint meeting, allowing some to merge and learn from others to improve the calibre of ideas through further development. “The community has welcomed the new award as they feel they’re being listened to,” Fiona says, “And the international component means there’s potential to shift our engagement in the world of population research and enable some really exciting collaborations”.

Two more international funding ventures new for CRUK are the Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C)-Cancer Research UK-Lustgarten Foundation Pancreatic Cancer Dream Team, and our own Grand Challenge.

Cambridge University’s Gerard Evan, one of the Dream Team co-leaders, is really enjoying the opportunity to work with a group of the world’s best cancer scientists: “It’s fantastic,” he says, “it’s completely opened up new areas that I’d never have been able to explore without this grant”. The rapidity of the bench to bedside translation of the research is also inspiring him: “We’re well on the way to getting some of our transcription cofactor inhibitors into patients”, he says, “and that‘s really important, because they might be curative. But the great thing is that we’re simultaneously using the basic knowledge we’re accumulating in the labs to inform and refine treatment.”

Our new Grand Challenge Award has propelled CRUK into the global spotlight in a way that no other scheme to date has managed. The size and ambition of the award means that we’ve interested the global scientific elite in working with us. Expressions of interest were received from 25 countries, and well over 200 institutions, and almost half were led by non-UK scientists. Joanna Owens from the CRUK Grand Challenge team highlights how many doors the award has opened: “We’ve heard from applicants that the expression of interest process prompted conversations and collaboration between people who would never normally have worked together,” she says, “with one PI saying that the opportunity meant he could call up all his dream collaborators, and once they heard about Grand Challenge they jumped at the chance to put a team together.”

We need cancer ambassadors, who’ll go out and share the challenges in cancer research with other fields

—David Scott

All these opportunities for multidisciplinary team science are designed to stretch the aspirations of all of CRUK’s scientists. We look forward to meeting you at conferences and workshops, seeing your grant applications, discussing your research, and moving together towards the new territories and challenges that lie ahead.


Killer Cravings: a night at the museum

Team ScienceWhen engaging the public with our research, we regularly bring researchers from different fields together, and develop initiatives that tell the story of our research in exciting new ways.

In September 2015 the Science Museum in London delved into the diverse world of cravings as part of its adults-only, after hours Lates series, and CRUK was one of several organisations there on the night helping visitors explore the topic. We focused on ‘killer cravings’ – what smoking does to our body and behaviour, and how we use research to help people kick the habit.

We brought together teams to explain different pieces of the puzzle. Guests enjoyed playing games, developed by the Oxford Cancer Epidemiology Unit, to discover how large population studies first helped discover the link between smoking and cancer. Scientists from the Francis Crick Institute wowed participants with microscope images of lung cells, and gave them the chance to take ‘cellfies’ with our smart-phone microscopes. Professor Robert West, and his group from the CRUK Health Behaviour Research Centre at UCL, explained what makes smokers crave cigarettes and why the habit is so hard to kick. CRUK’s policy team was on hand to highlight how changes in policy have had a huge impact on smoking rates.

The Lates event was a great success, with people queuing round the block in Kensington to get in, and offering us the opportunity to speak to hundreds of curious attendees. So much so that we’ve already recreated the event at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, enabling us to spread the word across the country.


In this article

Sara Courtneidge


Sara Courtneidge

Associate Director for Translational Sciences, Knight Cancer Institute, Oregon Health and Science University, USA



Gerard Evan


Gerard Evan

Professor of Biochemistry, University of Cambridge



Catrin Pritchard


Catrin Pritchard

Director, CRUK Leicester Centre



Dr Fiona Reddington


Fiona Reddington

Head of Population, Prevention and Behavioural Research, CRUK



Dr David Scott


David Scott

Director of Discovery Research and Centres, CRUK




Discover more

Multidisciplinary Project Award

Population Research Catalyst Award

CRUK and The Lustgarten Foundation join with Stand Up To Cancer to fund new Pancreatic Cancer Dream Team


This story is part of Pioneering Research: our annual research publication for 2015/16.