“Promoting” team science — URMC on the leading edge

During the lunch break at the Mini Summer Research Institute in mid-June, Beau Abar, Ph.D. and KL2 scholar, sat at a table in the Saunders Research Building lobby, swapping ideas with Harriet Kitzman, Ph.D., co-director of the CTSI.

“As a younger researcher, I want to be a team player, because the best science seems to come from strong collaborations,” said Abar. “But the best way to move up is to win those grants on your own — to be the P.I., to be the lead author. How can one do both?”

“That’s an issue that we talk about all the time,” acknowledged Kitzman.

As it turned out, the university was only weeks away from implementing updated tenure and promotion criteria specifically designed to reward talented team scientists for their contributions to collaborative research groups.


Jeffrey M. Lyness, M.D.

The new policies, which went into place on July 1, allow recognition for scientists who lead a defined portion of the work done by collaborative teams. Department chairs are encouraged to ask referee letter-writers to comment specifically about the unique role on the team played by such scientists. These materials are given serious weight in tenure and promotion considerations.

This allows talented team scientists to further their careers, even if they are not always in roles such as principal investigators for grants or lead authors for publications.

“Science has gotten too complicated and requires too many different types of expertise for one person. These days, groundbreaking science of almost every discipline happens in collaborative teams,” said Jeffrey Lyness, M.D., senior associate dean for academic affairs. “Tenure systems, however, were established to recognize the achievement of an individual, and in team science not everyone can be first author, senior author, P.I., or co-P.I.”

The new system, which was established following ample input from faculty across the Medical Center, received overwhelming support from department chairs before it was put into place.

Outside organizations have appreciated the changes, too: When Lyness exchanged emails about the new system with the staff of Ann Bonham, Ph.D., Chief Scientific Officer at the Association of American Medical Colleges, he received word that the university’s policies were on the “leading edge” in this area.

Karl Kieburtz, director of the CTSI

Karl Kieburtz, director of the CTSI

Since its inception, the CTSI has also played a lead role in supporting team science. Co-director Kitzman is currently working with several others within the Institute to learn more about what traits or characteristics make one team of researchers more successful than another. The Institute’s largest grant, the Incubator Program, is specifically designed to support research efforts that involve multiple investigators or departments.

“Translation of discoveries at the bench into care — maybe that hasn’t gone so well because people are pursuing individual awards,” said Karl Kieburtz, M.D., M.P.H., director of the CTSI. “So people may need to be educated about the benefits of team science and rewarded for that interdisciplinary approach.”

The various efforts are supportive of an environment that many faculty say sets the university apart from other academic institutions.

“Collaboration has always been key to the culture here. It’s part of what I loved about the school as a student, and part of why I came back as a faculty member,” said Lyness. “As Dean Taubman has noted publicly, our faculty turnover rate is low compared to our peer institutions, and I think that’s because of our culture.”

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