Slides | How to Collaborate: Tips on Team Science and Equity from NSF Program Officer John Parker


On February 8, 2019, John N. Parker facilitated the first UMass ADVANCE Research Collaboration workshop with an engaging talk on how collaboration and equity leads to better science. Parker is Program Officer for the Science, Technology and Society and Cultivating Cultures for Ethical STEM programs at the National Science Foundation. He is also Senior Sustainability Scientist, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and Senior Fellow, Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University.

Drawing from his significant experience leading research initiatives on team science and ethics education, Parker shared insights, data and guidelines on how to achieve better science through effective, equitable group collaboration.

Noting the R3 model at the center of the UMass ADVANCE program which promotes equitable access to resources, relationships and recognition for women and faculty of color, Parker believes this innovative program will lead to more successful faculty and a more successful research institution. Equity is stronger where resources, relationships, and recognition intersect, and interactional equity leads to the kind of social processes that make collaboration happen.

Parker discussed two types of groups that lead to innovative science: theory groups and synthesis groups.

Theory groups are small groups of 3-6 people that come up with paradigm shifting new ideas.  Theory groups have formed in many fields including mathematics, psychology and biology. There are three factors to their success: first, they get away from the usual routine and places.  One theory group meets every 18 months on a remote island. Second, they exercise personality selectivity by identifying members that would be good to spend time with, like on a remote island. Third, they have access to ample resources including cutting edge technology, diverse expertise and skills, financial support for collaborative meetings and access to graduate students.

Theory groups work because each member is considered equal; they lower social barriers which results in social solidarity and emotional energy. Many members experience a sense of instrumental intimacy such as knowing people so well that even a small nonverbal cue can transmit knowledge. These groups also report experiencing a sense of group flow and escalating reciprocity where ideas are shared, and members often feel they feel that they ‘owe it to one another’ to build upon each other’s ideas and concepts. This type of intimate, creative and reciprocal communication leads to increased productivity and new insights.

Another type of collaborative group are synthesis groups, also known as synthesis centers. These groups bring together 10-15 people several times per year, for multiple years, in face to face meetings to conduct transformative research on complex problems, particularly around scientific topics where data overload is a significant issue. These groups are interdisciplinary and cross-sector in nature with balanced participation by gender, sector and seniority. Successful synthesis groups combine formal and informal interactions with group rituals, share leadership roles and division of labor, which results in trust, solidarity and equality.

Parker pointed to research studies that show scientists can ensure diversity that levels status differences. Bringing senior and junior scientists together creates an essential social tension but collaboration can be created where diverse viewpoints are encouraged and false consensus, which can prevent creativity, can be avoided. Diversity among synthesis groups helps scientists “push past what we know”.

Parker concluded the workshop by providing a set of guiding principles for equitable group collaboration among scientists:

Guiding Principles for Collaboration & Equality

  1. Face-to-face (intensive or extensive) interaction– create an island for yourself
  2. Social and physical isolation from other groups
  3. Keep it small
  4. Time – longer duration interactions
  5. Rituals, identities, and informality
  6. Playfulness & Fun
  7. Balance diversities – beyond presence, making sure everyone’s voice is heard
  8. Beware the ‘band of brothers’ /excluding newcomers

The workshop was attended by faculty from Civil and Environmental Engineering, Chemistry, Computer Science, Education, Environmental Conservation, Isenberg, Kinesiology, Linguistics, Nursing, Political Science, and Sociology and staff from the Office of Research and Engagement. For those who were not able to attend, you can view Dr. Parker’s workshop slides here.