Guide to Collaborative Science


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Nor'easter Orleana, Jacques Cousteau Reserve, New Jersey. Photo credit: NERRA Photos.

Anticipate Challenges, Manage Proactively

  Tip: Anticipate potential conflicts

Integrating different perspectives in a collaborative science project can sometimes result in tension and unproductive conversations. Talk with your team to identify potential differences, political sensitivities, and tensions that may surface during a project, either within the team or with the project's extended group of end users and participants.

Being aware of potential tensions can help your team find ways to minimize their impact. Strategies for managing conflict include proactively structuring the meeting agenda and decision making process, enlisting the help of a skilled facilitator, and scheduling personal meetings to share results or discuss a decision that might spark tension in a group setting.

These tips for managing conflict were developed for collaborative science projects.


Project example: Resolving conflict

Collaboration with diverse team members and stakeholders can sometimes result in disagreements or contention. The New England Climate Adaptation Project developed a number of strategies to manage conflict during meetings and workshops. See this case study (Google Doc) or visit their project page.

  Tip: Get help to fill personnel gaps

Because collaborative science projects are based on relationships with individuals in key organizations, it can be hard to adjust when end users or team members change jobs or when their professional duties shift in ways that affect their ability to participate in a project. Here are a few tips for these situations:

Losing an end user advisor
  • Enlist the help of the person stepping away from the project to identify a good replacement. That person can suggest colleagues who have the right interests and responsibilities to contribute to the project.
  • Someone from the project team should have a personal conversation with a potential addition to an advisory group to explain the project, answer questions, and ensure the prospective replacement feels comfortable and empowered to contribute.
  • If possible, get the new and old advisors to talk to one another and pass along insights about the project and the potential applications.
Losing a team member
  • If a team member must step away from a project, the project lead should work with the team to identify ways to shift responsibilities or recruit a new team member.
  • The transition can be eased if there are well-established protocols for collaboration, shared folders for project documents, and a system for data management.
  • Spend some extra time explaining project context and the unique attributes of collaborative science. Depending on the new team member's role, it could be helpful for the new person to talk to individual end users to build those relationships and understand their information needs.
  • Be sure to update your sponsor about the changes and discuss any implications for the budget, timeline, or scope.


Project example: Project team changes

During the second year of their project, a team based at the Wells Research Reserve suffered the tragic loss of the lead science investigator. This individual had served as the Reserve's research coordinator for many years and possessed a deep reservoir of scientific knowledge about the local ecosystems on which the project was focused. In addition to the intense emotional impact, the loss of a respected researcher and team member posed a significant challenge to the project. See this case study or visit their project page.

  Tip: Begin planning early for end-of-project transitions

Early in a project, start talking about how your project will end, to help refine expectations about end products and the transition. Some team members will likely need to wind down their involvement when funding ends; some participants will likely stay involved because doing so is a core part of their job. If you hope the project will catalyze additional projects or an ongoing initiative, make that clear from the beginning so that your participants can start envisioning and taking steps to enact that possibility.

Throughout the project, document ideas you hear that are outside of scope for the current project, and let participants know that you are doing this. These ideas can spark future projects or form the basis of an action plan to further address your management need.

Save time for a project-retrospective discussion at a final project meeting. A final discussion, or another mechanism such as a survey, can provide a chance to reflect on lessons learned, identify what went well and what could be done differently in future projects, and explore next steps for research and management. Opportunities for reflection can foster new project ideas and help the team improve how they design and execute future collaborative science projects.


Project example: Begin planning early for next steps

The impacts of collaborative science projects often do not develop until after a grant ends. This case study shows how two project teams found ways to support the work of their partners after their grants ended.


Resource: Developing an action plan for buffers

The Buffer Options for the Bay project engaged a range of stakeholders while analyzing options for better protecting buffers along waterways. Ideas generated that were outside of scope for the current project were gathered into an action plan that continues to guide and fuel new projects. See their action plan or visit their project page.

This guide distills key observations and lessons learned from Collaborative Science projects funded by the NOAA NERRS Science Collaborative Program. Copyright 2022. For questions or permissions, please contact