Interdisciplinary Organizations and Research

Many of the most pressing environmental challenges cannot be solved by individual scientists or single academic disciplines. Challenges such as climate change, developing alternative energy sources, and land use management require teams of scientists from multiple disciplines to collaborate to achieve a common goal. Interdisciplinary research, where knowledge from two or more disciplines must combine to answer a larger question, is therefore becoming more common. To explore interdisciplinary research and its implementation, the Interfaces of Global Change (IGC) graduate seminar discussed a series of questions: What are the differences between inter-, multi-, and transdisciplinary research? What are the institutional benefits and barriers to interdisciplinary research projects? How can we address social barriers to interdisciplinary science, especially between low consensus and high consensus sciences? How does the IGC foster interdisciplinary research?

Although the term interdisciplinary research may sound self-explanatory, it is often misunderstood and mis-applied. We spent some time discussing the definitions of the terms Multi, Inter, and Transdisciplinary as defined in Choi and Pak (2006). Multidisciplinary work “draws on knowledge from different disciplines but stays within their boundaries”. Interdisciplinary work “analyzes, synthesizes and harmonizes links between disciplines into a coordinated and coherent whole”. Transdisciplinary work integrates science with the humanities, professional, and local knowledge. We then discussed examples of what is and is not interdisciplinary science. We concluded that these designations are important because they confer real meaning to cross-disciplinary research which can be used for deciding project funding and implementation.

Most interdisciplinary research projects are formed within academic and governmental institutions. We discussed the advantages of top-down and bottom-up formation of interdisciplinary research projects: the former by institutions compiling a team to work on a given question, and the latter by individual academics coming together to achieve a research goal. Factors such as funding/grants and social structure appeared to be important when forming successful interdisciplinary teams.

Studies of successful and unsuccessful interdisciplinary team science efforts suggest that social structure and communication within an interdisciplinary team are key factors for success. The basis for interdisciplinary research is bringing perspectives and knowledge from different disciplines together, but this often leads to difficulty because of the different communication styles and perceived hierarchies amongst different disciplines of science. This issue is apparent when people from low consensus fields (fields with multiple paradigms) interact with people from high consensus fields (fields with a single paradigm). For example, when social scientists (low consensus) communicate with scientists studying natural history (high consensus), there is often a gap in basic understanding about the other field that inhibits successful communication. We discussed strategies for communicating across disciplines, and the importance of cross disciplinary interaction and friendships.

A common theme that came up throughout the seminar is how the IGC fosters interdisciplinary research. As early career scientists in the IGC, considering the meaning of interdisciplinary science and how it can be successfully implemented was a reminder of the importance of opportunities like the IGC for communicating with scientists across disciplines.

Ben Kligman is a PhD student working with Professor Michelle Stocker in the Department of Geoscience, Paleobiology Lab Group. He studies diversification and extinction of small bodied vertebrates in the fossil record.
Jennie Wagner is a PhD student working with Drs. Megan O’Rourke and Ben Tracy in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences.  She studies plant diversity and pollination in pasture systems.