By Gabriele Bammer
What types of unknowns are tackled in interdisciplinary research? I draw on my experience directing a program of research on the feasibility of prescribing pharmaceutical heroin as a treatment for heroin dependence. Analysis of this case revealed six different types of unknowns:
- Disciplinary unknowns
- Unknowns of concern to stakeholders
- Unknowns marginalised by power imbalances
- Unknowns in the overlap between disciplines
- New problem-based unknowns
- Intractable unknowns.
As a point of contrast, let’s look first at discipline-based research. Disciplines have established norms about the unknowns that are the ‘business’ of that discipline. Becoming a disciplinary expert involves learning which unknowns to tackle and which to ignore. Becoming good at one’s discipline involves cultivating the ability to pick productive unknowns—those that address key questions and open new lines of research.
How does this compare with interdisciplinary research? Because the term interdisciplinary is used loosely, here I draw on the example of a team of researchers from diverse disciplines working with non-research stakeholders to tackle a multi-faceted complex problem. This example probably covers the greatest range of unknowns, many of which will also be relevant to other kinds of interdisciplinarity. Certainly the unknowns of concern to disciplines generally remain important in interdisciplinary research, but at least five additional types of unknowns may also come into play. Let’s consider each of these in turn.
1. Disciplinary unknowns
Interdisciplinary research often involves combining separate disciplinary considerations of unknowns. The foundation for assessing the feasibility of pharmaceutical heroin prescription involved combining the investigation of unknowns from a number of disciplinary perspectives including:
- demography to estimate the number of dependent heroin users
- philosophy to examine the ethics of a trial of heroin prescription
- epidemiology and biostatistics to review the range of possible trial designs
- anthropology to investigate the likely impact of a trial on ceasing both illegal and prescribed heroin use
- political science to assess the political context for a heroin prescription trial.
Some work led to new disciplinary insights, such as the economics comparison of heroin purity versus price as the “equilibrating mechanism”. Most of the research was a more routine disciplinary assessment of an aspect of the heroin prescription problem.
2. Unknowns of concern to stakeholders
Interdisciplinary research can involve addressing unknowns that are outside the business of any discipline, but are of major concern to stakeholders. In the heroin prescription feasibility research, for example, police were very concerned that the city hosting a prescription trial would become a ‘honeypot’ for drug users from around Australia and possibly beyond. This was not an unknown that any of the disciplines involved brought to the table and it was not addressed using solely discipline-based research.
3. Unknowns marginalized by power imbalances
Some unknowns concern relatively powerless stakeholders and are not seen as important in mainstream research and practice, but may be harder to ignore in interdisciplinary research. An example from the heroin prescription feasibility research concerned how to make treatment more attuned to, and respectful of, illicit drug users, which was addressed by a combined group of clinicians, illicit drug users and drug treatment researchers.
4. Unknowns in the overlap between disciplines
Some disciplines are traditionally closely aligned and overlap, for example sociology and anthropology. There may also be an overlap with stakeholder concerns. The point is that unknowns in the overlap are more effectively addressed by the disciplines combining forces and melding methods than by proceeding separately. An example from the heroin prescription feasibility investigation was background research on drug use, binge drinking and attempted suicide among homeless youth, which involved blending methods from anthropology and sociology, along with insights from youth workers and affected young people.
Working in the overlap between disciplines may also lead to the identification of new unknowns, which are not the business of either discipline alone. This did not occur in the study presented here, but is illustrated by the development of new disciplines springing from overlaps, such as biochemistry, behavioural economics and mathematical psychology.
5. New problem-based unknowns
Because interdisciplinary research is characterized by a focus on the problem, this can lead to identification of unknowns that are critical to the problem, but which have received little or insufficient disciplinary consideration. In the heroin prescription feasibility research example, it was realized that very little was known about illicit drug markets and that this was not (at the time) a major area of research. It led to criminologists and police combining forces to flesh out and investigate key questions about the likely effects of heroin prescription on illicit drug markets.
Although it did not occur in the case study presented here, it is also conceivable that a completely new framing of the problem, and therefore of unknowns, can occur. It is possible, for example, that the deliberations about heroin prescription could have led to a new theory of drug dependence and therefore new research questions.
6. Intractable unknowns
Not all unknowns involved in assessing heroin prescription feasibility were tractable. Whereas discipline-based research would tend to ignore questions that could not be ‘solved’, this makes little sense in interdisciplinary research, as such unknowns can lead to adverse unintended consequences or unpleasant surprises. In the heroin prescription feasibility research, a major focus was on identifying and addressing potential risks. Two risks for which there were no definitive answers were that heroin prescription could lead to more permissive attitudes to illicit drug use or that it could lead to the ‘honeypot effect’ referred to earlier. Certainly steps could be taken to potentially reduce these risks, but the interconnectedness and complexity of the issues meant they could not be ‘solved’.
Why does a consideration of unknowns in interdisciplinary research matter?
To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time the types of unknowns that are addressed in interdisciplinary research have been analysed in this way. Such analysis is of practical relevance in the assessment of interdisciplinary research grant applications.
If interdisciplinary proposals are assessed on the criteria used for discipline-based proposals, they would likely come up short. Many of the unknowns that feature in interdisciplinary research would not be considered relevant in discipline-based research. And the relevant disciplinary unknowns, treated separately, are likely to be more pedestrian and less compelling than would be expected for discipline-based research, even though they expertly address the interdisciplinary question of concern.
The relevance of unknowns and other aspects of peer-review for interdisciplinary research is addressed in Bammer G (2016) What constitutes appropriate peer-review for interdisciplinary research? Palgrave Communications http://www.palgrave-journals.com/articles/palcomms201617.
I welcome your feedback, additional examples of the kinds of unknowns described above and suggestions about other unknowns that interdisciplinary research addresses that I have missed.
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.