Lingfei Wu Honored with NSF Career Award

Lingfei Wu advances the Science of Team Science and Innovation, builds research communities.

Lingfei Wu, an assistant professor in the Department of Informatics and Networked Systems, has earned the prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER Award for probing into the distinct roles research teams play in unfolding the advance of science and technology. Dr. Wu’s project, “How Does Core Scientific Knowledge Advance Understanding Team Innovation at the Foundations of Sciences,” was funded for $565,087.00 for a five-year period, beginning in March 2023.

The highly-competitive grant, awarded to only 500 faculty each year across all disciplines, supports early-career faculty who demonstrate the potential to serve as academic role models and leaders in research and education nationwide.

The five-year award will support Wu’s investigation of team collaboration mechanisms underlying the production of millions of scholarly and educational documents over the past century. The study will examine how individual scientists can learn, progress, and effectively innovate in teams (see more at

“Science is getting harder and more complicated. And, a common belief is that teams are the solutions—the hope is that by putting together a blacksmith, a mason, and a carpenter, we will get a Leonardo da Vinci. But is this true? If teaming more specialists is all it takes to make bigger innovations, why have we seen larger research teams but fewer breakthrough ideas?” queries Dr. Wu.

Wu suggests that it is time to admit that we still know little of how teams work in science and reflect upon “team science,” the zeitgeist of our time that views collaboration as an inevitable trend, the expectation that scientists in teams will achieve breakthroughs otherwise difficult to attain through individual or additive efforts. Specifically, two problems at the foundation of team science call for a thorough investigation lest this high hope devolves into an underdelivered promise.

“First, the advance of basic, core scientific knowledge can be stifled or slowed despite the increased investment and workers in science,” explains Wu. “It is expensive to keep a large team, therefore, large teams tend to solve funded scientific problems. But what problems will be funded? Research funding is supplied where society feels an urgent need to know the answer, not where scientists believe it is important to probe deeper. If science is only busy responding to the shifting social interests, the slow accumulation of core knowledge may restrain downstream research and educational initiatives in the long run. For example, the fast and successful development of the COVID-19 vaccine would have been impossible without decades of basic research on mRNA mechanisms. However, it is unclear how a flood of pandemic funding has helped mRNA studies or other research of fundamental importance in biology.”

“Second, the roles of young scientists in scientific innovation have become an overlooked topic in the era of big (team) science. While there are more temporary scientific positions opened for junior scholars, such as research assistants, lab technicians, and postdoctoral scholars, how the teamwork contributions of the young talent translates into their long-term credit and career opportunities is unclear,” explains Wu.  

To respond to these problems, Wu leverages big data, complexity sciences, and artificial intelligence to develop multiple research directions under the umbrella of the Science of Team Science and Innovation. Building upon his previous findings published in Nature, PNAS, and other prestigious journals, Wu proposes to quantify the evolution of core scientific knowledge as the displacement between highly-cited research articles on the same topic; examine the psychological, communications, and financial conditions of individual scientists in teams that successfully innovated the core knowledge; and finally, investigate the career outcomes of team members who contributed to core knowledge innovation, with a special focus on early-career women and minority scientists.

Wu also introduced the societal value that this research program will provide. He believes that the produced literature, metrics, databases, and code would educate practicing scientists, research and funding managers, and policymakers on how to design, support, and evaluate research teams. To see these impacts in action, he has developed partnerships with leading funding agencies, including the John Templeton Foundation and the Novo Nordisk Fonden, and consulted with them on how they can better manage funding portfolios and support team science with a data science approach.

In addition to research, CAREER Awards include funding for educational and public outreach initiatives. “I’m really excited about that,” Wu said. “There are multiple educational components. The first component will be adding a new module called ‘visualizing beautiful science,’ to my course in Information Visualization, which is available for all graduate students across the campus. We will develop Python code on networks, maps, time series, and more, to visualize scientific activities.” Wu said. The outcome of this undertaking will constitute a major contribution to public knowledge and bears aesthetic and cultural significance (the inserted figure shows a selective collection of student projects from Wu’s course).





Another educational component of the project involves open science initiatives that support next-generation scholars across research communities in team innovation studies. Wu mentioned his experience of publishing his first research paper using data downloaded from the Internet, and his commitment to return the favor. As an example, the Disruption score, a novel research metric that identifies radically innovative works based on their citations, has been calculated for nearly 20 million papers using the algorithm developed in Wu et al.’s 2019 paper in Nature and has been shared with 16 research groups around the globe. This dataset, now published on Harvard Dataverse, has been downloaded over 270 times. Wu is planning new workshops and conferences to synchronize with diverse stakeholders on building more open science products (see more at ​​

“My research findings consistently point to the value of independence for scientists, in a world where the value of connections is often overstated, but I also believe that for any scholar who has made remarkable discoveries in the history of science, there was an intellectual community standing behind them. This proposal is built upon decades of team studies and has benefited from the input of other scholars; to pay off these intellectual debts, I am obligated to do open science and more to help other researchers.” Wu said.

Please join the Department of Informatics and Networked Systems in congratulating Dr. Wu on this prestigious grant and the recognition it conveys on his potential as a scientists and leader in the field of Information Sciences.