Managing Cross-disciplinary Collaboration among Scientists and Artists

I promised to post some reflections from my own experience managing crossdisciplinary teams. Note that this has been in the context of team grants - I have managed projects involving as few as two or three researchers to others involving hundreds - so there are issues around budget transparency, but given the discussion around the cooperative, this still seems relevant so I have left these points in. Also, I added a separate list for managing art-science collaborations. Hope this is useful,

Cross disciplinary collaboration

  • bring assumptions to surface (not easy) - what are basic tenets of your discipline/area? - what things are important to you?
  • identify what your own goals/needs are, so you aren’t subverting processes designed for the group to meet personal goals (a form of transparency)
  • work on definitions but don’t try for unanimity - agree to disagree - definitions matter, but if you understand someone else’s definitions, even if you don’t agree, you can work together
  • I usually interrupt (politely) and ask team members to explain concepts or terms, even if I think I know how they are being used. I don’t mind being the “dummy” for the group, the one who needs everything explained - I know from experience, there is usually someone who doesn’t understand the term/concept but may not want to intervene
  • take ownership over assertions, don’t project them onto other people
  • make sure budgets are transparent, but also ensure they do the job mandated (sometimes this may mean divvying up funds, but other times, funds need to be centrally managed)
  • be open with people, especially if you are doing something that concerns them
  • make sure all pertinent team members are invited to participate in publications
  • projects come and go, but your relationships, for good or bad, endure - don’t jeapardize a relationship for a project, no matter how attractive the latter seems
  • as facilitator, be accommodating to all participants, rephrase/restate when clarity is needed (restating is always a good idea, except, maybe, sarcastically), summarize points after discussion (this allows the discussion to move along to the next point as well as restating/encapsulating, and also serves a ritualistic role as a marker), calm things down if they get out of hand (call for silence, or reset another meeting after tempers have cooled, etc.)
  • opportunities to present the work of different team members to each other are necessary to advance the collective process
  • for structured meetings, announce and follow a timed agenda, but not necessarily « by the book »
  • meeting notes/summaries are highly useful, but often don’t capture important points raised by individuals that aren’t picked up by others ; video recordings compensate for this problem, but the two are complementary

Collaborative Writing

Note that collaborative writing is hard, whether in science or in fiction - I have succeeded only about 30-40% of the time, despite sometimes the best intentions. Your weaknesses have to work together (like in a good marriage), not just your strengths.

Regarding art-science collaborations :

  • expect to spend oodles of time working out a common perspective - there is nothing « quick and easy » about this process
  • note that there is a need to provide safe spaces where artists can take on the mantle of scientists, and scientists can take on some form of shared artistic practice - this is the only way I know to really get teams to integrate the two kinds of practice
  • scientists tend to want to consolidate ideas before moving on to new areas of inquiry ; artists, on the other hand, tend to use multiple perspectives to advance their artistic practice, and hence will seem to “flit around” from one area to another. Both tendencies are destabilizing for the other group - scientists find artists seem to abandon topics before the work is finished, while artists view scientists as often overly rigid in sticking to a particular frame of mind. Each needs to understand the constraints of the other - this is partly why safe spaces for cross practices are important
  • on the plus side, scientists often find entirely new areas of inquiry if they listen to their artist collaborators (and the burgeoning artists within themselves), while artists are fascinated by the cogent, detailed systems perspectives of scientists (and their own burgeoning scientist selves)
  • don’t try to « push things along » - the process of collaboration is quirky, highly non linear, and needs lots of breaks, silences, steppings away and coming backs. If you wait patiently for things to happen in their natural rhythms, you will be gob-smacked by the work that emerges… trying to rush things will only forestall such revelations
  • it is unfortunately all too easy to drop back into an « art in the service of science » or a « science-informed art », and lose track of hybrid practice, which is harder to do and requires sitting with its built-in uncertainties, rather than cleaving back to familiar processes of either art or science
  • another unfortunate element is to confound science with technology - many efforts that call themselves art and science integrated are actually art and technology integrated. This is not the same - science calls upon raising new questions or new modes of understanding/knowledge, technology is more about technique, how things are done.
  • you can always backtrack if you end up locked into one of these traps, however - usually someone in the group will notice you’ve lost your way
  • there are no fully developed hybrid art-science research methodologies, although there are several partial efforts in this direction (phenomenological initiatives, Whiteheadean-Deleuzian initiatives, cognition-based approaches, others) - this makes progress difficult to measure
  • assessment of outcomes is hence tricky - by whose measuring stick is assessment carried out? and how is it done? should it even be assessed?

Excellent guidelines and I want to pick up on this. I perhaps was a bit melodramatic when I said that our survival depends upon getting science and art integrated but I do believe we are in trouble if we dont bridge the current divide. I think part of the trouble is that most of us confuse what we refer to as the physical world with the waking world. They are not the same. The waking world is made up of much that can’t be adequately reduced to a physicalist explanation. Aesthetic relationships have been crucial in science as in art. This recent series at the Helix Center develops this topic and I think it resonates with what we discussed.


These excellent guidelines & observations, Geoffrey, which I would like to be able to refer back to. Would you mind if I split this post into a dedicated topic? I wonder if this could make good supplemental #co-op:codex material.

Similar guidelines for critique & feedback of creative work (drawing or building on @johnnydavis54’s contribution above) could also make a good standalone doc, it seems to me.


No problem, Marco. I just put it here out of continuity.

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Excellent. Done. I hope that we can build on this material through experience with some such real collaborative ventures, when the time comes.

PS. Feel free to edit the title, of course…


Awesome. I look forward to such opportunities!


Really enjoyed reading this and I could really sensed into the people and the process. Very evocative. I have facilitated projects across boundaries of integration post merger of companies as well as across disciplines (for example medicine social work and education where the legal and policy frameworks can be used to block progress. ) One of the Earth Wisdom techniques I have used is called the Questions Basket process. It is a great way to hear all the voices before moving to action. It is said that before a indigenous tribe moved camp it would open a questions basket so that all concerns/ideas/ needs could be captured for the elders to weave into the planning. When action plans are created based on a questions basket then I found that the people knew that it was based on a collective sensing of what is needed and were less likely to challenge the intentions. They might challenge the actions of course.
I loved what Gregory said about taking responsibility for assertions and sometimes I would take a time out to look at how questions open up exploration and get people to practice turning an assertion into a questions. Here I go practising this. How sis you work with humour in the process? When did it help? When did it get in the way?
I am so enjoying tapping back into things I have done over the years and remembering the highlights. And the lowlights too where I could slip into school mam mode. LOL


I love the Question Basket idea, Ann. Do you think it would be a good idea to set up a Question Basket channel for the site, where participants can drop their questions and dialogue about them? I know I personally could not answer every one, but it would be good to know what they are and how people think about them. Answers may come from the collective sensing. I do think it would be a good practice to let questions mature for a while before drawing conclusions. Some questions may be more urgent than others, of course.


So, as a young man I was introduced to a whole slew of meeting facilitation processes, largely based on consensus decision-making, but when I went to work at the university in a different culture (Quebec), I found that it was difficult to introduce all those approaches to that clientele. So I learned to pick and choose, and adapt what I could, to a more traditional process environment. So, for example, we used ideas such as passing an object around, and while you had the object, you could speak as long as you liked and not be interrupted. That kind of practice didn’t transfer easily to the academic environment, despite the fact that it favours a more equitable context for making contributions. So I compensate by listening for people who speak a lot, and those who speak less and encouraging or inviting the latter to speak. I also try to stop people from interrupting each other, although that isn’t always easy. Also I listen for men versus women, or other demographics who are sometimes neglected and make sure they have time to express themselves. I try to do that even when I’m not the official facilitator (although sometimes I don’t succeed at this, I get too caught up in the issues) - I think meetings run better when more people are attentive to process.

In an online environment, though, I think there are also other adaptations that might need to be thought through. The Questions Basket seems to me, if I understand it right, a good way to handle inequities in an online context.

Another thing I sometimes do, I kind of gauge the group ahead of time, is try to introduce some kind of movement practice into the meeting space. The thinking on this is that research has shown that movement and thought are related. Sitting still is not the best way to think. So I bring “toys” to meetings that people can play with, quietly. I am not sure how to adapt this to online environments, however, it’s something I’m still thinking about…

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Yes Geoffrey - really get this and I appreciate the respect we hold for difference and seeking ways that help move to deeper connection and awareness.

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Hi Marco Yes this could be a easy way for people to engage by just posing a question and then you could follow the flow and even fork when needed. I just wonder if this detracts from establishing a thread. What do you think?

The Question Basket process itself begins with one over arching question ( often framed in ‘What is needed to …?’ ) and invites people to write their questions in alignment to the big question. We then categorise the questions in to bundles that smaller groups can then explore on behalf of the whole group. So seeking answers is not the focus at the beginning of the process.

Then you touch on the dance between ‘urgency and importance’ and we have another protocol called the Ten Stones to help with this. Each person is given 10 metaphorical stones and they can allocate 4 to the most urgent/important issue that emerges from the analysis of the questions, 3 to the next , 2 and then 1. The issue that get the most stones is a consensual decision of where to begin. It can work well and also can reveal energies where people do not wish to follow the consensus and we have respond to this too:)

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Thanks for the clarification on that, Ann. In my mind’s eye, I saw the “Question Basket" as something like a “Suggestion Box,” where anyone might slip in any scrap of paper willy nilly. I see that there’s a greater order to the process you describe. It makes me curious what a good overarching question might be for us at this time. I suppose that’s a question in and of itself.

Hi Marco - Yes having a space to drop in ’ a scrap of paper willy nilly’ feels freeing and fun and perhaps encourage new people to have a go. :slight_smile: