March 2011

Teamwork: industry and academic perspectives

As science advances at an ever faster pace, expertise in different fields often is required to address more complex problems. When asked about the importance of an interdisciplinary approach in addressing urgent scientific questions, Christian de Duve, who shared the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with Albert Claude and George E. Palade in 1974 for their discoveries of cell organelles, replied that “in biomedical research, multidisciplinary collaboration has become mandatory” (4). Investigators with diverse backgrounds often look at problems from entirely different angles and may apply different techniques to solve them. The advantage of collaborative approaches in research is well recognized. In fact, nowadays most scientific publications have authors from multiple departments and institutions, reflecting the reality that current research is done collectively and no longer individually.

Making it work

Teamwork in industry and teamwork in academia may differ in goals and organization charts. For example, a product that requires cooperation from multiple departments may be the ultimate goal in industry, while a publication that requires collaboration from several laboratories may be the final aim in academia. However, the requirements for successful teamwork in both sectors are quite similar. Every team member needs to understand the overall objective of the project, his or her responsibility, the timeline involved, potential problems and their solutions and alternative strategies.

In addition, clear and timely communication between team members is critical to ensuring the smooth transition of the project from one stage to another. The constant interactions between project managers, scientists and associates in industry as well as principal investigators, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students in academia require professional respect, common language and knowledge of the subject and critical evaluation of experimental results. Identifying and solving problems encountered early on, and even taking approaches to prevent potential problems from occurring, are essential to overall efficiency and success.

Collaborations between companies and academic institutions are increasing, but they have a long way to go. Different regulations and practices may exist between the two sectors with regard to issues like confidentiality agreements, material transfers and associated documentation. It is not difficult, however, to foresee that fruitful collaborations can be crafted if both sides understand clearly the benefits of working as a team. Together, we can advance science and technology at a faster pace, making our world a better place for generations to come.

References

1. Fleming, A. (1964) Penicillin. Nobel Lectures, physiology or medicine 1942 – 1962. Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam.
2. FitzGerald, G. (2010) Drug development needs a new brand of science. Nature 468, 869.
3. Wadman, M. (2010) Francis Collins makes the case for an institute focused on translational research. Nature 468, 877.
4. de Duve, C. (2010) The joy of discovery. Nature 467, S5.

Qingyu Wu (wuq@ccf.org) is a professor of molecular cardiology, nephrology and hypertension at the Lerner Research Institute, Cleveland Clinic. Weiping Jiang (weiping.jiang@rndsystems.com) is a director at R&D Systems, Inc.

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