Why research with impact requires purpose and teamwork

Evidence indicates that collaborative research leads to remarkable results, improved productivity and meaningful outcomes. Working in teams, members contribute different disciplinary perspectives and it helps if they work in proximity.

Ben Jones of Northwestern University analyzed 22 million academic publications and patents over five decades. He found that the size of research teams increased by about twenty percent every decade. Scientific papers by multiple authors received more than twice as many citations as those written by individuals.

Isaac Kohane of Harvard Medical School found that when coauthors are clustered closer together, their papers have significantly higher citations. The closer the collaborators are located, the higher the citations to their papers are.

Collaborations can be complicated ventures. A diverse mix of collaborators requires more time to discuss, understand and align individual goals with those of the overall project. With their inherent disciplinary diversity, teams often have to reconcile dissimilar work styles and perspectives due to differences in gender, age, culture, focus, knowledge, and status.

A structure is required to foster cohesion, communication and coordination before collaborators fully embark on a project and reflect on the learning from their research.

Think of it as building a runway before takeoff and successful flight.

When it is purposeful, research is also experiential learning since it includes concepts of inquiry and critical thinking.

I’ve been discussing this with Doug Barber for the past six some years. Doug retired as President and CEO of Gennum Corporation in 2000 and is a leading thinker on the subject. He’s also a long-serving Dean’s Advisory Board member. 

He contends that students must be introduced very early to industry-driven learning, since that early engagement inspires them to become innovators, creative thinkers and leaders.

Our response for enhancing team-based integrated research and education is IMPACT: Initiative for Multidisciplinary Projects and Creative Transformation. Through it, we have created research clusters that pursue big ideas to address broad societal challenges, enabling our scholars to learn about complex challenges and solve them through an integrated multidisciplinary approach.

IMPACT funds big ideas proposed by teams of three faculty members from varying disciplines to solve a grand challenge problem, such as one suggested by the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs).

The education and training of undergraduate and graduate students and postdoctoral fellows is an important focus.

The competencies learned through The Pivot.

The Pivot is a transformative project that prepares students to be flexible in a rapidly-changing world and to meet challenges not yet imagined. They gain valuable competencies – discovery and creativity, problem solving, innovation, diversity and citizenship. Through IMPACT, the entire project team – students, faculty and research staff members – will learn and obtain the competencies of The Pivot . 

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