Chapter 16: Creating Support for Team Science: The Challenges and Possible Solutions

Chapter 16: Creating Support for Team Science: The Challenges and Possible Solutions



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In this chapter, Dr. Mills first observes that one of his major contributions to MD Anderson and to the field has been to facilitate the research of other people. He then shifts to a discussion of the issues arising from the increasing focus on and need for team science strategies to adequately leverage the potential of current science and technology. In particular, he notes the challenge of adequately acknowledging the contributions of multiple researchers when the reward system is designed for individual investigators. He also mentions the challenge of building a career in a team science context and notes that the current model of the physician-scientist is not sustainable, nor is the current model for training individual investigators.

Next, Dr. Mills sketches the sources of resistance to changing the research culture to one more supportive of team science. He tells an anecdote to demonstrate how culture works in favor of individual investigators and he notes some personality qualities that team scientists share.



Publication Date



The Making Cancer History® Voices Oral History Collection, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center


Houston, Texas

Topics Covered

The Interview Subject's Story - Overview; Contributions; The Researcher; MD Anderson Culture; On Research and Researchers; Understanding Cancer, the History of Science, Cancer Research

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.


History of Science, Technology, and Medicine | Oncology | Oral History


Gordon B. Mills, MD, PhD :

I'm going to perhaps lead you in a little different direction. One of the major challenges that we have today, and this will relate to many of the things that you wanted to talk about, is how to develop and implement the team science that is going to be necessary to fully capitalize on the incredible amount of information that we have generated. Throughout my career, and indeed my complete career, one of my major roles has been to facilitate the research of others around me. Indeed, if you look at my CV, I have probably the broadest group of collaborators and collaborative papers, really starting from when I began my career. One of the roles that I played and the opportunity that I was allowed, was to develop techniques, technologies and approaches, and then make them available broadly. This is becoming much more important and apparent in the community today; however, it is still met with a lot of challenges. So how do we balance the concepts of team science, of people working together in teams, in groups, where it's not entirely clear, in a publication, what the contribution of a single individual was, with the concept of career development. So I, and other people in the field, and I would say perhaps the most active person in this particular area of team science and career development has been Joe Gray, one of my long-term collaborators, have worked on how we start to put together a program wherein the contributions of individuals across different efforts and team science, are recognized.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

What does that look like?

Gordon B. Mills, MD, PhD :

It's a challenge. One of the things that we have attempted to do is to understand how this works in the area of physics, and one of the reason I know about this in fair detail is that a physicist also goes by G.B. Mills, and you will find his papers with fifty, sixty, a hundred authors on every paper, and most of the time in alphabetical order. And so the question is, is how do people in the physics field deal with the fact that any project is a five, ten-year project, for a single paper. The technology, the costs, are so enormous, that you have to build teams, you have to plan as a group, you have to then implement the process and yet, develop a career for those bright, young scientists who are going to be the next generation of leaders. We have not figured out how to do that in the biological sciences, but in the physics field, in part it's a smaller community, and when positions become available, you simply pick up the phone and call the leaders at the different centers and say I have a position, who is the person that we should be looking for. And I think that to a degree, we should do that a lot more in the biological sciences, because this will allow us to deal with this concept of how do you build, maintain, support, the teams that are going to be necessary to deal with the new information deluge and the new technologies that are available. With Dr. Mendelsohn, we sat down and looked at this, when he was president, and implemented a couple of pieces, with the Promotion and Tenure Committee, with the concept that individuals would be able to indicate, on each paper, that where they had a major contribution, even if they were middle authors, and were to be given the same credit as if they were last authors, with the idea that my contribution was critical to the development of this project and the paper that arose from it, and it would not have happened or not have happened as well or quickly without me; therefore, I should get complete credit. I think that's helped a bit but only a bit. There still is a historical view to most of what we do, and the idea of the R01 driven scientist, with a lab, a postdoc, a student and a technician that will study an area in incredible depth, pervades the field. Now that type of study is absolutely critical. You cannot do the broad, translational sciences without those types of studies, so in no way am I implying that this should be either/or. But rather to build on all of those studies that have occurred over the last fifty, sixty years of support from the National Cancer Institute and other mechanisms, to really make a difference, is going to require a team effort, that it has to be structurally different than what we've had, and the challenge that that raises. The biggest challenge that that raises is how do you recognize team members and support them in their career. I have met with the president's advisory board, with multiple different groups, to have these discussions, and I think that we really are in the midst of trying to figure out how to make this work. Some areas, such as bioinformatics and informatics, I think this is working much better. They are newer fields, newer disciplines, and much more open to newer approaches.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

What are some of the approaches used in those fields?

Gordon B. Mills, MD, PhD :

I think there, it's a small enough field that you know each other.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

So that seems to be key.

Gordon B. Mills, MD, PhD :

I think that's a big part of it, and so the idea of participation in the team is important and indeed, I review grants in England, for example, or the United Kingdom, and there, pretty well everybody knows everyone else, and their participation in the community, and it's not quite the same as team science, but in the community, is a major component of how they are viewed in terms of ongoing support for their research, and it is not as tightly tied to a narrow document that is in front of you, that you use to determine who will or will not be funded, but a much broader view of the role of that individual in moving science forward, not just in their own lab, but within the community effort that is needed.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

What are some of the activities that become important, because what you're saying is obviously, a person is more than his or her CV. So what are those, you know, activities that aren't reducible to the document, that are taken account of?

Gordon B. Mills, MD, PhD :

So how much effort do you put in, to making people around you better, or making what they produce better. Can you build -- so that's one aspect of it. A separate question is can you build, maintain, and work with, a team that can do more than a small group, that can cross disciplines. And I think that's the real key component of a team, is that you're not having just a hundred biochemists in a room. What I'm talking about is building a group where you have some biochemists, some oncologists, clinicians, surgeons, imagers, bioinformaticians, and that they work together providing much more than each can do on their own. Indeed, I think we are in an era where the scientist, physician scientist for example, who does everything, is probably not going to be sustainable. You're going to have to build teams of a physician, a bench scientist, a bioinformatician, and use the optimal skillsets of each of them. And how to do that and how to maintain those interactions is really part of the challenge. With the fact that scientists are taught, during their training, to be individuals, selected to be individuals because you progress by what you accomplish early in your career, finding and nurturing people who can work across those boundaries and put aside their need to be last author on every paper because of their ego, to saying am I going to make progress for our patients, is a major challenge. And frankly, if we don't figure out how to do it and do it well, I think that we will not move ahead as quickly as we can, with the new technologies, new information that we have. Now, one of the pieces that forces that is the fact that our technologies not only are evolving rapidly, but the infrastructure to make them happen is expensive. So, having your own piece of equipment in your own lab, that is used 10 percent of the time, versus having a group of people who can put together that same piece of equipment and then use it extensively across labs, without possessiveness and ownership, is part of this concept of team science. That applies not only to equipment, but also to the data that one generates, which again is very expensive to generate, and if I hold it in my own silo saying it's mine, I own it and I'm going to mine it, because then I will be last author, versus putting it out and saying you know what, I may lose something because somebody abuses it, uses it, but on the other side, the benefit from that, of moving things forward, of collaborations that occur, is where we have to find the balance.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

To what extent… I assume, maybe wrongly, that there is some resistance to this, and you're smiling, so I guess I'm right. What's your evaluation of the source of that, I mean to what degree is it a person -- this, this is a paradigm shift, and to what extent is an individual just not getting it, they can't kind of extend their framework for understanding work and the generation of intellectual capital, into this kind of model? To what extent is it personality, and maybe other things that I'm just not even thinking of?

Gordon B. Mills, MD, PhD :

Well, part of it is cultural. I can tell you, and this to me, was one of the most disappointing events that happened around recruitment in quite a long while, is that there was an open recruitment in another department, and the department chair who was running the recruitment simply said to their assistant, add up the number of first author papers, multiply that by the ISI score of the journal, and order the people from top to bottom.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Oh, my gosh.

Gordon B. Mills, MD, PhD :

And that immediately removed any concept of whether the individual had been collaborative, interactive, all of those things where they sit in the middle of the paper, and made those around them better, was eliminated. Now, it's easy, it's straightforward and indeed, we still do this because it is easy. I can look at the first author papers and I can look and say that they made a major contribution, I can look at the journal and say this is the relative impact, but when you start saying well, when somebody is in the middle, what does it mean and what did they do, and did they actually do anything, it is much harder to determine what that process is. So, I think that part of it is ease, the other is, it's cultural. We have been taught, and this is the example of it, that you count up the first and last author papers, and that's what you pay attention to. Again, it's easy, it's straightforward, it takes no extra thought and work, and with that culture in mind, of how individuals are evaluated, promoted, and to a degree get grants, it generates a system where people say well, I'm not last author, why would I be on a paper? And indeed, one of our senior scientists, who will go unnamed, at MD Anderson, said I'm not last author, I don't play, I don't participate. It's not my role, not my job. My job is to be the senior driver of this project and if I'm not, not interested. So that shift, from the way we were trained to do things, to a different process, is very hard. The other one that I think is the one that we noted a moment ago, which is the career development aspect of it. So if you have a young trainee, and they take a look and say I'm only going to develop a career, if I'm first author or co-first author on papers, and that's the way I need to behave to get my job, to get my first grant, that then promulgates not just the behavior, but the type of person where that is their behavior. We teach it, but we also select it, and so it is, I think very hard for people to understand that that is a transient role in one part of your career, and then change this role later on; some people right from the beginning, but change that role later on in a career.

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Chapter 16: Creating Support for Team Science: The Challenges and Possible Solutions