Building Bridges: The Power of Collaboration in Scientific Research

Successful collaborative research project demonstrating the power of interdisciplinary teamwork

If you’re keeping up with contemporary discourse about climate change, you’ve encountered the term “polycrisis” by now. There are many ways to describe and specify what a polycrisis is, but we like Adam Tooze’s definition: “when the whole is worse than the sum of the parts.” More plainly, it refers to a situation, like climate change, where multiple crises are interconnected and exacerbate each other.

So what’s the treatment plan for a problem so insidious and interconnected?

Whatever the solution is, it will need to be interconnected. It will need to be better than the sum of the parts. And it will certainly require deep and intentional collaboration.

By bringing together diverse expertise, resources, and perspectives, collaborative research endeavors have the power to tackle complex challenges, accelerate progress, and drive meaningful impact.

Easy, intuitive, and well-supported by our present institutions? Not exactly.

Scientists face structural, cultural, and logistical barriers that can hinder collaboration—and that’s to say nothing for direct antagonism to climate research. This article explores the systemic obstacles and provides strategies to overcome them, alongside the benefits of stakeholder engagement and collaboration in scientific research.

Benefits of Stakeholder Engagement and Collaboration

Despite the challenges, engaging with stakeholders and collaborating with other researchers offer numerous benefits. When researchers involve stakeholders from various backgrounds, including academia, industry, government, and the public, they gain access to a wealth of expertise, resources, and perspectives that can enhance the quality and relevance of their work. 

Collaboration fosters interdisciplinary approaches to problem-solving, promotes knowledge exchange and innovation, and increases the likelihood that research findings will actually be translated into real-world applications. (We’ve previously written about the importance of claiming your discoveries by communicating the impact of scientific research beyond the lab.)

Additionally, collaborative research projects are often more resilient and sustainable, leveraging the collective strengths and capabilities of multiple stakeholders to address complex challenges.

For instance, a climate writer working on environmental impact studies can collaborate with policy consultants to ensure that their findings influence environmental policies effectively. Similarly, an academic writing coach can work with researchers to enhance the clarity and impact of their manuscripts, making scientific knowledge more accessible to a broader audience.

Strategies for Building Effective Research Teams

Jumping into marriage without a shared vision may make compelling reality television, but it’s not a strategy recommended for scientists looking to build resilient and impactful responses to climate change. Building effective research teams requires careful planning and consideration of diverse skills, expertise, and perspectives. 

To begin with, you’ll need to put yourself out there and identify potential collaborators. Use professional networks, conferences, and online platforms to find collaborators with complementary expertise. Start by doing this in ways that become natural to you, and then step outside your comfort zone. For example, a technical writing consultant might partner with a public health writer to produce comprehensive reports on health interventions—and then later collaborate on co-writing a white paper. (Back to the marriage metaphor: wine and dine someone you’re interested in before making irreversible commitments.)

Don’t jump straight into working with your potential collaborator without taking time to establish clear roles and responsibilities. Define the roles and responsibilities of each team member to ensure accountability and efficient workflow—and to avoid stepping on toes. Put work agreements in writing. (Sign the pre-nup.)

Developing a strong work relationship isn’t a single event. It takes habits and actions to foster open communication and trust. Ideally, your team will develop a work style that suits the people in it, but you can’t go too far wrong by emphasizing regular meetings, transparent communication, and trust-building activities—all tried and true methods of maintaining a cohesive team. (Schedule regular date nights and relationship check-ins.)

Interdisciplinary scientific workshop promoting collaboration and knowledge exchange among researchers.

Examples of Successful Collaboration Models

From large-scale international consortia to grassroots community partnerships, collaborative research initiatives have led to groundbreaking discoveries, innovative solutions, and positive societal impact. But successful collaboration models can be hard to imagine in the abstract, so let’s put this in terms of existing successes in scientific research that spans various disciplines and sectors. 

  • The Human Genome Project: This large-scale international collaboration involved researchers from multiple countries and disciplines working together to map the human genome. The project’s success has had far-reaching implications for genetics, medicine, and biotechnology—and could only have happened with cooperation from researchers studying deeply in all three of those areas.
  • The IPCC Reports: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) brings together climate scientists, policy consultants, and technical copywriters to produce comprehensive assessments of climate change. These reports inform global climate policies and actions. They’re addressed to an extremely diverse audience—and so needed to be developed by researchers who are diverse in their knowledge and context.
  • The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment: This global research initiative brought together over 1,360 experts from 95 countries to assess the state of the world’s ecosystems and the services they provide. The findings have influenced environmental policy and conservation efforts worldwide, demonstrating the power of interdisciplinary collaboration. The amount of translation alone is formidable.

Your collaborative research initiative may be much smaller and more targeted than these examples, but it can still embody the same spirit. You can learn, from their examples, how you may be able to manage the obstacles that you certainly will face.

Overcoming Barriers to Collaboration

Scientists often face structural, cultural, and logistical barriers that can hinder collaboration. Here are some strategies to overcome these challenges:

Structural Barriers:

  • Manage funding constraints by encouraging funding agencies to create programs designed for collaborative research and apply for joint grants that emphasize and reward collaboration.
  • Navigate tricky institutional policies by developing clear and flexible intellectual property (IP) agreements to facilitate data sharing and collaborative research. Leverage administrative support to help researchers navigate bureaucratic hurdles and formalize collaborations.

Cultural Barriers:

  • Dismantle disciplinary silos by participating in interdisciplinary workshops and conferences to build networks and share knowledge. Use common platforms and standardized tools for communication, data sharing, and project management.
  • Resist the competitive culture that often characterizes research. Foster a culture of recognition and credit-sharing within collaborative projects to ensure all contributors receive adequate acknowledgment for their work.

Logistical Barriers:

  • Bridge geographical distance by utilizing virtual collaboration tools such as video conferencing, shared online workspaces, and collaborative software to bridge geographical distances.
  • Prevent data management issues by using standardized data repositories and management tool to streamline data sharing and ensure compliance with data governance policies.

Practical Tips for Engaging with Stakeholders

Like any relationship or group project, collaboration is a benefit as well as a responsibility. Engaging with stakeholders throughout the research process is essential for ensuring the relevance, impact, and sustainability of research findings. Researchers generally engage with stakeholders, including community partners, policymakers, industry stakeholders, and the public, in a number of different ways, depending on the circumstances.

  • Stakeholder Meetings: Regular meetings with stakeholders can provide valuable insights and feedback on the research process and outcomes. Done well, they also prevent unpleasant surprises.
  • Focus Groups and Workshops: These can be used to gather input from diverse stakeholder groups and foster a sense of ownership and collaboration.
  • Public Outreach Events: Engaging the public through outreach events, science communication workshops, and media can increase the visibility and impact of research findings.

For example, a science copywriter might work with a policy writer to develop communication strategies that effectively convey complex scientific concepts to policymakers and the public. An academic writing workshop can provide training for researchers to improve their writing skills and effectively communicate their findings. Written Progress offers bespoke writeshops for this reason!

Conclusion

By embracing the power of collaboration, researchers can harness the collective strengths and capabilities of diverse stakeholders to address complex challenges, accelerate progress, and achieve meaningful outcomes.

Collaboration lies at the heart of scientific research, driving innovation, discovery, and impact. It’s also the best tool we’ve got to combat the polycrisis.