Director’s Corner

Dec. 6, 2018: Team Science Champions!

Christopher Austin

At NCATS, we often say that translation is a team sport. I use this aphorism because it helps convey how team science is more than just collaborating with other researchers: It is working as an integrated and interdependent group to accomplish a common goal that cannot be achieved alone or with a single type of expertise. Team science promises to drive major improvements in translational efficiency and effectiveness, since what is difficult or impossible for one member of the team may be easy for a teammate with a different skill set. In fact, we have found that the more intractable the problem, the more diversity in team expertise is needed to solve it.

But as in all areas of science, team science requires data (e.g., on what kinds of teams work best to solve particular kinds of problems, and how those teams should be constructed, led, incentivized, and evaluated). Two major events have recently advanced this aspect of translational science.

The first is evidence published by the NCATS Biomedical Data Translator program in the November 2018 issue of Clinical and Translational Science. Recall that the scientific goal for Translator is ambitious: Develop a tool that seamlessly integrates multiple types of existing data sources to help researchers identify connections among disparate data. Toward this end, NCATS designed a correspondingly unique approach: In the two years since the program launched, our Center has assembled 11 teams from 26 institutions that had to quickly begin working together — and trusting each other — to make progress.

Most of the Translator team members did not know each other previously, nor had these experts in their fields ever worked so closely on a project like this before. Challenges included the hurdles of divergent scientific languages, cultures, and practices; multi-institution coordination; and the critical importance of trust, which was fostered by NCATS’ encouragement of open discussion and constant feedback. The first of the articles published this month by the Translator describes the amazing scientific progress made in the first two years of the program. The second article is devoted to the unique culture, structure, and ethos the team developed that powered their scientific progress. The Translator investigators attribute their success to diverse skill sets, skillful management, and a “communitarian spirit,” which allowed them to exceed their own expectations in tackling the complex issues presented by the Translator mission.

The second big event in team science was our Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA) Program’s Great CTSA Team Science Contest, which showcased collaborations across the consortium. Despite the contest’s prizes not including money — just bragging rights and a T-shirt — the CTSA Program hubs outdid everyone’s expectations, with 170 submissions from more than 40 institutions showcasing a range of team science innovations. The 11 winners presented posters and received their well-earned rewards at the October 2018 CTSA Program investigator meeting.

One of the contest’s winning projects, which paired clinicians with engineering students to address pressing medical challenges, included a team that developed a smartphone app to help emergency department staff coordinate care for trauma patients with staff from the operating room, imaging, anesthesiology and intensive care. In pilot tests, the app improved teamwork scores and reduced the amount of time patients spent in the emergency room. The contest organizers are now looking at how these creative ways to conduct team science can be disseminated across the CTSA Program.

These two exciting developments not only show the enormous potential of translation as a team sport, but also establish new paradigms that can be implemented broadly to improve the efficiency of the translational process for all diseases.

Christopher P. Austin, M.D.
National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences