on those results. As they mature individually, some researchers begin to look for patterns and seek the broader implications of their research and thus many senior scientists reach out beyond their own expertise to collaborate with colleagues in allied disciplines, taking advantage of synergistic interactions to seek answers to important questions. A few scientists seek even broader collaborations that synthesize information across extensive areas of expertise in search of comprehensive understanding of the nature and scope of their discipline. Truly exceptional scientists can manage broad syntheses single-handedly, but such individuals are so rare that the scientific community must also develop team-based strategies to yield the insights that emerge from cross-disciplinary syntheses.
Our reward systems tend to promote individual scholarship and its products over the processes required for broader, more synthetic, activities. In many institutions, the order of authorship and even the number of authors is viewed as an important characteristic of published work such that being sole author, first author, or an author among few co-authors is viewed as especially worthy. Individual grants and the number of graduate students in one’s own laboratory are important evaluation criteria rather than the development of multidisciplinary projects with dispersed resources and intellectual capital.
Synthetic, interdisciplinary research requires efforts that can be viewed as unproductive and even onerous (such as increased efforts at communication, data sharing). Furthermore, results emerging from large projects with many authors may be devalued (i.e., divided by the number of authors) in our current reward system, even though it may lead to insights that an individual scientist might not have been able to conceive or might not have had the standing to promote or publish.
These issues arise in many disciplines and are becoming increasingly common as teams of research scientists organize to address issues from different perspectives. Such “team science” requires explicit reconsideration of funding schemes, measures of academic performance, protocols for authorship, and policies for sharing data. For example, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has established initiatives to facilitate interdisciplinary research,1 NIH’s Bioengineering Consortium has recently reported on the nature and implications of team science,2 and Altshuler and Altshuler (2004) discuss the challenges in combining genome science and human clinical research. Thus, while the issues discussed below are not unique to the integration of biological and geological approaches to understanding biosphere dynamics, they are important to progress on the topic.