Do we need to discipline interdisciplinarity?

By Gabriele Bammer

Gabriele Bammer (biography)

Imagine a team of researchers tackling global health inequalities, with a focus on sanitation. The team comprises epidemiologists and biostatisticians interested both in measuring the extent of the problem and designing intervention trials, engineers investigating a range of sanitation options, anthropologists examining the cultural aspects of sanitation, economists and political scientists documenting the economic benefits and looking for policy levers to assist in making change happen.
The team is working at national policy levels and with a range of target communities seeking to engender small business interest in promoting new sanitation options, as well as individual and community behaviour change. There is collaboration with major international donors and non-government organisations. The team has a talented and charismatic leader.

What the team does not have is access to the full array of theory and methods for synthesising the input of the different disciplines, along with all the relevant stakeholder knowledge. Nor does it have the ability to bring to bear all the different ways of teasing out and taking into account the knowledge gaps – the unknowns. Finally the team cannot tap into the wealth of information about how to provide effective integrated research support for policy and practice change.

That is not to say that the team has no expertise at all in these areas. Some members have past experiences of working on similar projects to inform their input on this project. A few team members have taken an interest in particular bodies of relevant scholarship. One has developed expertise in the science of team science, especially conflict resolution, another in how government policy is made and a third in constructing causal loop diagrams. Nevertheless, the team is not able to draw on the extensive knowledge that is available because that knowledge is currently highly fragmented and it is no-one’s business to pull it together to make it accessible.

This imaginary scenario illustrates the rationale for my 2013 book, Disciplining Interdisciplinarity: Integration and Implementation Sciences for Researching Complex Real-World Problems, which laid out the case for a new discipline of Integration and Implementation Sciences (I2S) to underpin research on complex real-world problems. Experts in this discipline bring the following expertise and skills to their teams, how to:
•    synthesise relevant disciplinary and stakeholder perspectives,
•    understand and manage unknowns, and
•    ensure that both are used to inform and support policy and practice change.

Such a discipline would underpin a range of related approaches, including interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research, action research, systems thinking, postnormal science, integrated assessment, and implementation science.

I2S specialists have a comprehensive understanding of each of these domains. They also have areas of deep expertise within them. For example, one specialist may focus on having very detailed knowledge about a particular modeling method for bringing together disciplinary and stakeholder knowledge. Another may concentrate on ways of understanding and dealing with unknown unknowns. A third may have in depth understanding of government policy making and the ways in which research input is likely to be most productive.

Further, I2S specialists have expertise in assessing which disciplines and stakeholders are relevant, framing problems and solutions, dealing with value conflicts, and gauging how circumstances affect the conduct of the research.

Let us stay with the team in our imagination for a few moments longer and modify it.

Imagine that no-one on the team actually has any relevant in-depth disciplinary training. The researchers in charge of epidemiology and biostatistics are actually trained in music and only know how to access some relevant data sets and once helped design a randomised controlled trial. Those responsible for the engineering segment know a lot about one sanitation option, but actually have little interest or experience in others. You get the picture…

This would be intolerable. Yet this is exactly the situation of the research world when it comes to integration and implementation practices for team-based research on complex real-world problems.

There is growing recognition that training in a new skill set is needed. For example, recently Katja Brundiers and Arnim Wiek advocated for Transacademic Interface Managers. Elsewhere Christine Hendren proposed Interdisciplinary Executive Scientists (Hendren & Ku, 2019). There is an active community of Research Development Professionals, with Holly Falk-Krzesinski suggesting the potential for “a mutually advantageous relationship” between the Research Development Professionals and I2S specialists.

Right now such a specialisation does not exist. Nevertheless, one feature of the fragmented state of knowledge about research integration and implementation is that there are many pockets of researchers who have some relevant skills and the potential to be the foundation members of such a specialisation.

If you are reading this you are likely to be one of them. What do you think? Does belonging to and helping to shape a new discipline have appeal?

Note (added December 2021): the abbreviation I2S was changed to i2S in 2016.

Reference (added to replace non-functioning link in December 2021):
Hendren C. O. and Ku S. T. (2019) The Interdisciplinary Executive Scientist: Connecting Scientific Ideas, Resources and People in Hall K. L., Vogel A. L. and Croyle, R.T. (editors) Strategies for Team Science Success. Handbook of Evidence-Based Principles for Cross-Disciplinary Science and Practical Lessons Learned from Health Researchers. Springer, 363-373.

Biography: Gabriele Bammer PhD is a professor at The Australian National University in the Research School of Population Health’s National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health. She is developing the new discipline of Integration and Implementation Sciences (I2S) to improve research strengths for tackling complex real-world problems through synthesis of disciplinary and stakeholder knowledge, understanding and managing diverse unknowns and providing integrated research support for policy and practice change. She leads the theme “Building Resources for Complex, Action-Oriented Team Science” at the US National Socio-environmental Synthesis Center.

2 thoughts on “Do we need to discipline interdisciplinarity?”

  1. Standing ovation! As a practicing I2S specialist, currently thinking of myself as the “Interdisciplinary Executive Scientist” variety, this call for a formally recognized specialization and associated career path resonates strongly with me.

    I currently serve as Executive Director and Research Scientist at a large research center that spans multiple disciplines, institutions, and countries to tackle a complex multi-scale problem. In our case we are seeking to understand what controls how a newly “discovered” class of materials, nanomaterials, behave and interact with our environment including living organisms in order to forecast their potential risks and responsible use. In my role I perform many of the functions articulated in this post – having grown into them organically, based on an ad-hoc recognition of need and on aptitudes that are a function of personality and a variety of professional experiences. I’ve picked up some helpful tools along the way, including being formally trained in facilitation, drawing on being a natural systems thinker, and having run volunteer organizations where leadership, by necessity, stems not from authority but from aligning the organizational strategy with the latent interests and motivations of the participants. I have seen first-hand that this work has helped frame and stay focused on our shared center mission, how it has synthesized individual contributions and improved the science outcomes of our center; and yet, my fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants experience also highlights for me how very far this role and my work is from optimized.

    From the vantage point of my organically grown role, developed in the vacuum of our specific center, I think of the missed opportunities and problems associated with failing to define or recognize this career path in terms of two overall categories:

    Sub-optimal Science Outcomes:
    Organizations needing these functions could be benefiting more with established role definitions, training needs, and performance metrics.
    • I have no metrics to measure or objectively communicate the value I have added in terms beyond my boss’s happiness with my performance.
    • I (and the center) could certainly benefit from knowledge of other synthetic methods, shared planning tools, or events that might add value, beyond those with which I happen to have experience.
    • I have no direct peers with whom to form a community and share best practices, or perhaps more importantly, failures (Quick plug: A workshop devoted to exploring the formation of such a community of practice will be held at the May 2016 Science of Team Science conference in Phoenix, Arizona).

    Sub-optimal Talent Recruitment:
    There is little incentive for a high-performing ambitious scientist to perform these functions in absence of a defined career path.

    • There is no clear career path forward for people like me. This role is understood as somewhere between a long-term post-doctoral associate and an academic administrator, and will end with the center’s funding cycle. Despite my contributions to the research outcomes of the center and my extremely supportive leadership, my administrative functions and the fact that no students or post-docs work for me are in conflict with building a tenure track portfolio. At the same time, the experience and systems-level expertise that my years in this position have allowed me to amass is beyond that of an average assistant professor applicant.
    • With no understood career path or discipline for boundary expertise, there is no context for others to assess my scientific stature, outside of my personal relationships. Outside of my network of colleagues who appreciate my work as a one-off exception, there is no institutional or disciplinary context by which to communicate my expertise or value. My heavy investment in the scientific synthesis for the center may or may not translate into career dividends.

    I do this job anyway, because honestly it is where my best talents and greatest interests lie. I see the value of this interdisciplinary function, I see a set of needs that I can help meet and that I think are important – increasingly so as we tackle the very complex intertwined challenges facing our society. To be successful in addressing these challenges, I believe it is not enough to hope that there will be people willing to go without the accolades or security of an acknowledged career. We must find ways to flip institutional perspectives, so that people like me shift from falling through the cracks to being recognized as the mortar. And beyond this, we must give people like me the tools and training to become stronger and more effective mortar.

    • Your suggestions about sub-optimal science outcomes and sub-optimal talent recruitment really hit the mark. The closest analogy that I can think of is the profession of statistician. Nowadays, most quantitative projects would not proceed without a statistician on the team – as an equal team member, highly regarded for the skills they bring. Although integration and implementation skills are different, the I2S role in a team has similarities to the role of the statistician. Statisticians also had to fight to be included as full team members, rather than just being brought in to do bits of analysis, with that battle now largely won.

      Unlike statistics, I2S has the additional challenges of defining the tools and skill sets, agreeing on measures of quality, and developing a college of peers. These are all substantial tasks, but the time is ripe to proceed.


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