by Philippe Marchand
Like many scientific fields, research in ecology is increasingly collaborative . Progress on both fundamental and applied research questions frequently requires collaboration between multiple labs. Yet, granting agencies still appear to treat team science as a “second-order” project, to be pursued by established researchers only after having demonstrated success in a traditional PI role. Could collaborative funding become a widely available option from the start of an academic career? My perspective here focuses on the Canadian case, but I would be curious to know how this resonates with researchers elsewhere.
In Canada, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) provides broad-based funding for academic researchers via its Discovery Grants program. The longstanding Discovery Grant program is remarkable in many respects: it provides relatively long-term funding (5-year, renewable), is open to all topics of fundamental and applied research, and allows early-career researchers (ECRs) to succeed at a rate comparable to established labs. While grants are initially modest ($20,000 to $30,000 per year), they serve as a springboard to other funding opportunities. The program also firmly rests on a traditional model of academic labs, where a PI advances their individual research program and contributes to training of new scientists in a formal supervisory role.
To my knowledge, there is no collaborative equivalent to Discovery, which could provide predictable core funding to teams of ECRs on a broad range of topics. Rather, team funding opportunities are often temporary; highly-targeted to strategic research areas and specific types of collaboration; require matching funds; and/or fund travel and team meetings but not the conduct of research itself. They are often prestigious, large-value grants aimed at teams led by preeminent experts.
This year, NSERC folded a number of its partnerships programs into a new Alliance program. Alliance allows a broader range of partnerships compared with its predecessors, and values contributions from government and non-profit partners as well as industry. Like many other team funding opportunities, however, it may remain out of reach for most ECRs. Alliance grants are expected to be highly selective, and across all funding levels – from $20,000 to $1 million per year – one of the key criteria for Researcher Excellence is the PI’s previous success as a grant PI . This creates an incentive to name the most senior team members as PIs, rather than those who will actually lead the project.
While it is up to granting agencies to increase the offer for team grants targeted at ECRs, there are steps scientific organizations could take to increase the demand for such grants, namely, to ensure that researchers have opportunities to build a collaborative portfolio early on. When working at the US-based National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), I was impressed by the success of SESYNC’s graduate program , where participants received training in team science before self-organizing into working groups. The publications from these student groups, as well as those of postdoctoral students receiving two-year fellowships at the center, show that ECRs can lead productive science teams when given the opportunity and resources. I was enthusiastic to learn that the Canadian Institute for Ecology and Evolution (CIEE) is launching its own graduate program, while also gathering evidence of the impact of (team-based) synthesis work on academic careers.
There is no reason why team science led by graduate students or postdocs should be confined to the national level, with participation skewed towards a few large research-intensive universities. These centers could seed similar programs at the regional or local level, down to the scale of academic departments, to incentivize ECRs to initiate collaborations among themselves.
Finally, we must recognize how team science is also hindered by persistent biases that undervalue the contributions of groups already underrepresented in academia . Shifts of resources towards team funding opportunities must be paired with equally effective efforts to ensure equity in both access to individual awards and recognition of contributions to team awards.
 See e.g. Duffy (2017) for trends regarding numbers of authors (https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/ece3.3435).
 For the smallest grant level (under $30,000 per year), NSERC is boasting an expedited review process that uses results from the PI’s previous Discovery Grant application, even though Alliance’s focus on applied science means that applicants may not be as competitive on Discovery’s fundamental science-driven criteria. Thus it might be excluding ECRs for whom this funding would be most impactful (http://www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca/Innovate-Innover/alliance-alliance/review-examen_eng.asp).
 E.g. Sarsons (2017), showing that women co-authorships are undervalued relative to men in economics (https://www.aeaweb.org/articles?id=10.1257/aer.p20171126).
Author biography: Philippe Marchand is an assistant professor in ecology and biostatistics at the Forest Research Institute of the Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue (UQAT). He occasionally tweets at @philmrchnd.