Timothy Makepeace, JWST Vertical Primary Mirror, 2017, charcoal and pastel on paper, 49 x 49 inches.

A New Model for Research Teams

In “Time to Say Goodbye to Our Heroes?” (Issues, Summer 2021), Lindy Elkins-Tanton challenges the conventional wisdom on how we organize our research enterprises. She calls our current approach the “hero model,” where professors in subdisciplines control a pyramid of resources—mini-fiefdoms that end up vying for attention, students, and budget. This model has tended to disincentivize collaboration, encourage cutthroat competition for resources, and in the worst cases, facilitate bullying and harassment. Without collaboration, research tends away from interdisciplinary work, where many of the true breakthroughs in science and technology emerge.

Even more worryingly, the hero model has produced a personality-based environment, driving away many students who could have truly contributed. It might preserve the students who thrive in a highly competitive environment, but not necessarily the best or most creative scientists. It has helped suppress diversity and discouraged inclusion.

Instead, Elkins-Tanton, who is a colleague of mine, suggests that the research community could move toward a more team-based model, with multidisciplinary groups addressing big challenges in science and society. In order to solve big problems such as climate change, we need multiple skillsets and voices. Both she and I have seen this model work extremely well at NASA, where multidisciplinary teams have conceptualized and implemented missions that explore our solar system and the universe. Our most significant challenges require interdisciplinary work, and require us to include all voices.

Most research enterprises are aligned much the way universities have been organized for hundreds of years. To truly move science and technology forward, it is time to break this paradigm and rethink how we conduct our enterprise. Heroes can’t save us—we all need to be part of the solutions.

Under Secretary for Science and Research

Smithsonian Institution

In her thought-provoking essay, Lindy Elkins-Tanton urges her fellow scientists to “ask ourselves whether we are solving the biggest and most urgent problems, and whether we are lifting up our colleagues and the next generation to do the same.” At universities, the stark answer to this critical question is no. However, given the challenges facing all of us across the globe, we need to change our approach so we can answer yes—and we need to do it right now. The challenges are too complex, too impactful, and too urgent to continue as we are.

We need to change the way we do research, and Elkins-Tanton offers an indispensable framework: identifying questions, creating an interdisciplinary team, using seed funding, and making a professional project manager a key member of the team. She cites no loss of scholarly output from these changes; in fact, they provide the added benefits of increased speed of innovation, incorporation of goals not usually pursued, and a transformative change in culture.

Importantly, this framework motivates a focus on big questions that matter not only to scientists but also to people in the community, whom Elkins-Tanton invites to participate in the problem-formulation stage. By emphasizing expansive interdisciplinary teams, she places diversity and inclusion at the center of ethical and pragmatic science, where they belong. As she writes, “The collective future of humankind requires that we hear all the voices at the table, not just the loudest.”

The challenges are too complex, too impactful, and too urgent to continue as we are.

As a statistician, I would urge anyone considering implementing Elkins-Tanton’s model—and I hope many do, quickly—to include from the start robust assessment tools and the collection and analysis of data. Her proposed framework deserves a rigorous empirical understanding of what is working and why, so that the model can be improved with each iteration. The resulting evidence will also promote the model’s adoption.

Changing the way we do research, of course, cannot be achieved with the snap of our fingers. Elkins-Tanton alludes to the need to alter incentives around hiring, promotion, and tenure—issues that are often allergic to risk-taking, team-based projects and scholarship derived from societal needs. Fortunately, there is work being done to identify ways to evolve universities’ existing practices, as evidenced by a workshop I participated in led by the Meta-Research Innovation Center at Stanford, the conclusions of which appeared in an article by David Moher and colleagues in PLOS Biology in 2018, as well in an article by Moher et al. in Issues the same year.

It will take strong leadership across all universities to evolve faculty incentives, but that work is worth it because until academics can answer Elkins-Tanton’s key question in the affirmative, we are not serving the true needs of humanity. We are serving only ourselves.

Executive Vice President, Knowledge Enterprise

Professor of Health Solutions, and Mathematical and Statistical Sciences

Arizona State University

In “Time to Say Goodbye to Our Heroes?” Lindy Elkins-Tanton not only asks and answers this critical question about our traditional academic structure, but pushes us to reevaluate the underlying value system and reward structure of the knowledge creation enterprise. She suggests that knowledge creation be driven by “big questions” rather than “big names.” I expect that the “heroes” themselves were originally motivated by such big questions, but the current funding structures and conservatism of review panels make it difficult to shift to the bigger, more complex questions asked by modern society.

As Elkins-Tanton also describes, research development is most innovative and fruitful when led by a diverse, creative, empowered team equipped with the opportunity and safety to bring its best ideas. I myself am a product of the traditional “hero” system, but only now—being solidly mid-career with tenure—am I able to realize the full potential of a collaborative and diverse team.

Research development is most innovative and fruitful when led by a diverse, creative, empowered team equipped with the opportunity and safety to bring its best ideas.

We work exclusively with this model in our research projects at Arizona State University’s Interplanetary Initiative, of which Elkins-Tanton is vice president and I am an associate director. And our experiment is working!

Since the hero model is increasingly in conflict with the societal shift toward teamwork, interdisciplinarity, and the inclusion of diverse voices, it’s time to broaden the scope of our experiment.

Here are a few opportunities for bringing these values to the wider academic system:

  • Review panels for any resource allocation should be double-blind when possible, such that the research questions and proposed experiment methodology are evaluated rather than the principal investigator. This has been shown to work in at least the few cases I am particularly familiar with, such as the time allocation process of the Hubble Space Telescope and some smaller grant programs within NASA and the National Science Foundation.
  • Universities’ promotion and tenure criteria should include an explicit evaluation of these values, so that people coming up the ranks with these newer research perspectives are able to reach positions of influence and promote the values-evolution process.
  • We need to teach students at the undergraduate level how to ask big questions and guide their own learning as part of interdisciplinary and diverse teams, while training people to be both leaders and collaborators. Our Interplanetary Initiative is now in its second year of offering a Technological Leadership bachelor of science degree, which is designed to do exactly this, aligning the next generation of learners with the needs of modern society.

There are many more changes, both systemic and specific, we need to make as our values in the knowledge creation enterprise shift away from the hero model. It won’t be easy, but it is necessary to ask and answer the big questions society faces today.

Associate Professor of Astrophysics, School of Earth and Space Exploration

Associate Director, Interplanetary Initiative

Arizona State University

When Lindy Elkins-Tanton asks if it’s “time to say goodbye to our heroes,” I respond: “Most definitely!” Her article focused on the social and productive benefits of teamwork, specifically mentioning NASA mission teams. As cochair of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s committee charged with “Increasing Diversity and Inclusion in the Leadership of Competed Space Missions” proposed to NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, I’ve been following her teamwork approach—especially on the Psyche mission.

But I think it’s clear that the problem starts long before the time of graduate students and junior researchers that she mentions. I’ve been following the demographics regularly posted by the American Institute of Physics’ Statistical Research Center, which show that the big drop in participation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—the STEM fields—by historically underrepresented communities happens earlier along the career pathway. The “pinch-point” is somewhere between high school and the first couple years of college. It’s those 400-student Physics 1 classes where the “hero” culture hits home.

It’s clear that the problem starts long before the time of graduate students and junior researchers that she mentions.

True, many universities have moved on from the “chalk and talk” lecture mode. But despite increases in class demonstrations, group discussions, and the use of classroom response systems known as “clickers,” there’s still a culture of the person in the front (still most likely to be an older white man) knowing it all and telling you—perhaps with a well-meaning smile—the facts you need to memorize. Studies reported in the 1997 book Talking About Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave The Sciences, by Elaine Seymour and Nancy M. Hewitt, showed that both women and men had similar negative reactions to such teaching, but the men tended to stay while the (equally capable) women tended to leave. A follow-up book in 2019, Talking About Leaving Revisited, showed that such issues persist, and extend beyond the factor of gender to race and ethnicity.

I fully respect the work of Elkins-Tanton and her Interplanetary Initiative. The much harder job will be changing the education system to increase the embarrassingly low (and demographically narrow) US per-capita production of STEM bachelor’s degrees, as shown in, among other sources, The Perils of Complacency: America at a Tipping Point in Science & Engineering, published in 2020. Achieving that goal will require not just saying goodbye to the heroes but also making serious national investments in education.

Assistant Director for Planetary Science

Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics

University of Colorado Boulder

Cite this Article

“A New Model for Research Teams.” Issues in Science and Technology 38, no. 1 (Fall 2021).

Vol. XXXVIII, No. 1, Fall 2021