How to build effective science networks: Lessons from a panel discussion

22 September 2023

ANU College of Science's recent networking and panel discussion led by Professor Penny King, Associate Dean (Research) - Creating Effective Science Networks - featured three panelists from different disciplines: Professor Ken Baldwin, Assistant Professor Caitlin Byrt, and Dr Victor Pantano. They shared their insights and experiences on how to build and maintain multidisciplinary teams and networks in science.

The panelists agreed that multidisciplinary research is a rewarding and stimulating endeavour that can lead to novel discoveries and innovations. However, they also acknowledged the challenges and difficulties that come with working across different fields and domains. Here are some of the key takeaways from the panel discussion:

  • Multidisciplinary research ‘keeps you young’ by taking you out of your area of expertise - you need to learn new things and understand others’ points of view and ways of thinking. This can enhance your creativity, curiosity, and problem-solving skills.
  • Learning new things keeps your brain plastic however it does take time and energy. You need to be willing to invest in learning new concepts, methods, tools, and languages that are relevant to your collaborators’ disciplines. You also need to be patient and flexible when dealing with uncertainties and ambiguities.
  • Translation of knowledge and learning new systems across the university can be challenging. You may encounter barriers such as different academic cultures, administrative procedures, funding sources, and expectations. You need to be proactive in finding ways to overcome these obstacles and communicate effectively with your partners.
  • Building relationships – especially in the getting-to-know-you stage is important. It requires face-to-face meetings to build trusted relationships and collaborative networks. As with all relationships, it’s a two-way street – you need to work out what you need AND what they need. You need to show genuine interest, respect, and appreciation for each other’s work and contributions.
  • A good way to develop multidisciplinary teams is to approach the Deans across the university with a non-threatening approach to get buy-in for your idea – and to offer solutions to the problems rather than asking for resources. You need to demonstrate the value and impact of your proposed project and how it aligns with the strategic goals of the university and the colleges involved.
  • All aspects of your project need to have this “multidisciplinary” approach – including recruiting people for your project. Advertising that the position will focus on a multidisciplinary approach will entice people who work with this mindset right from the start. You need to look for people who are open-minded, curious, adaptable, and collaborative.
  • Value what others do – be open to new approaches, interested, and respectful of what and how others do their work. You need to acknowledge the diversity and complexity of different disciplines and appreciate their strengths and limitations. You need to avoid imposing your own assumptions, biases, or preferences on others.
  • It takes time to get the chemistry right and get people on the same page – creating time for people in the team to relax together is important. You need to foster a sense of belonging, camaraderie, and fun among your team members. You need to organize social events, informal gatherings, or team-building activities that can help you bond and get to know each other better.
  • Terminology is also important – language matters but we can have very different understandings of what certain terms mean to people from other disciplines – it takes time to develop a common understanding and language. Holding seminars, workshops, and retreats helps you build your language of understanding and may attract others to your team who are inspired by your culture. You need to create a glossary or a dictionary of terms that are commonly used in your project and explain their meanings clearly.
  • Value people in your team who are the “glue” in your team. The ‘people’ person who encourages social interactions and gatherings. Support them to foster the identity of the team. You need to recognize and appreciate the role of these individuals who can facilitate communication, coordination, and cohesion among your team members.

The panel discussion was an enlightening and engaging event that provided us with valuable insights on how to create effective science networks. We learned that multidisciplinary research is not only about combining different disciplines but also about creating a culture of collaboration, respect, and innovation.

We hope that this article will inspire you to explore new possibilities and opportunities for multidisciplinary research in science.