Academic journal article Journal of Research Administration

Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts: A Qualitative Study of the Role of the in Facilitating Coordinated Collaborative Science

Academic journal article Journal of Research Administration

Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts: A Qualitative Study of the Role of the in Facilitating Coordinated Collaborative Science

Article excerpt

Background

In recent years, biomedical research has become increasingly collaborative (Falk-Krzesinski et al., 2011; Wuchty, Jones, & Uzzi, 2007). Today's large research challenges such as global climate change and the early detection of cancer can only be addressed in large, multi-site, multi-disciplinary collaborative efforts, as they require the input of scientists from disciplines as disparate as epidemiology, ecology, sociology, clinical medicine, molecular biology, population genetics, and veterinary medicine. The development of information and communication technologies (ICTs) has allowed scientists to work together in larger numbers, on increasingly complex problems, over ever greater distances. Such large collaborative projects bring together scientists from different labs, different disciplines, and different institutions, generally bringing all these disparate elements together into a functioning whole. Yet this collaboration comes at a cost. Coordinating large numbers of dispersed researchers working on such complex questions across geographic and institutional boundaries requires a substantial commitment of time and resources (Cummings & Kiesler, 2007). This administrative burden often falls on the lead Principal Investigator (PI) and his/her staff.

In the field of cancer epidemiology, multi-site research projects are increasingly employing coordinating centers (CCs) as a tool to ease that administrative burden by offloading it onto a group with substantial experience in the coordination of such projects (Rolland, Smith, & Potter, 2011). A CC is a central body tasked with coordination and operations management of a multi-site research project. We call this type of collaborative science "Coordinated Collaborative Science," defined as collaborative research done with the support of a CC. While other types of collaborative science may use similar facilitation techniques or experience similar challenges, Coordinated Collaborative Science concentrates much of that facilitation work in the CC itself and, thus, represents a unique perspective on facilitation.

A CC is generally formed to support a specific project, such as a consortium tackling a problem that can only be addressed by employing a networked structure. Seminara et al. (2007) define networks in epidemiology as "groups of scientists from multiple institutions who cooperate in research efforts involving, but not limited to, the conduct, analysis, and synthesis of information from multiple population studies" (p. 1). Such networks can be built and/or funded in a variety of ways; however, in Coordinated Collaborative Science, the research centers and the CC are generally funded as individual components of the network by separate Requests for Application (RFAs) or, occasionally, by contracts. The CC does not usually have an official pre-existing connection to any of the research centers.

We know very little about either how such networks function or how best to facilitate them. In fact, there is no definition of what facilitation means in the context of Coordinated Collaborative Science. CCs receive very little guidance as to how to go about their tasks beyond the vague, high-level expectations laid out in the funding agency's RFA. Few CCs write about their work, leaving new CC PIs and managers to devise their practices anew without evidence of efficiency or efficacy. NIH spends millions of dollars each year supporting such networks and their CCs, yet little research has been done on how the CCs work, how to structure these CCs, or precisely which aspects of the research project should be allocated to the CC. This research presented here seeks to rectify that deficiency by investigating and documenting the work practices of two CCs currently involved in Coordinated Collaborative Science. To that end, we have identified areas of the collaborative process that are enhanced by the work of the CC. The areas on which CC members chose to focus, along with their tools and techniques, are the result of collective decades of experience coordinating multi-site projects. …

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