Recognising interdisciplinary expertise

Gabriele Bammer (biography)

By Gabriele Bammer

Could we overcome the challenges of embedding interdisciplinarity in the academic mainstream if relevant expertise were defined and recognized as a new discipline? What is this relevant expertise?

Here I consider team-based interdisciplinarity addressing complex societal and environmental problems and argue that it needs specific expertise over and above that contributed by disciplines. This set of knowledge and skills is currently poorly defined and recognized.

If contributing such know-how was an established role, it could provide a way of more adequately integrating interdisciplinary researchers into academic institutions. Furthermore, the time is ripe to codify that expertise by pulling together lessons from decades of experience.

To illustrate what is needed, let us look more closely at research on illicit drug use as an example of a complex problem. Each relevant discipline brings an important, but only partial, understanding to bear. For example, pharmacologists contribute knowledge about the effects of these drugs, epidemiologists about estimated levels of use in the population, criminologists about impacts on property theft and other crime, legal experts about regulations and laws, historians about how those laws came into being, and so on.

But it is no existing discipline’s business to combine these disciplinary perspectives to allow illicit drug use to be viewed more comprehensively. To do this effectively requires a solid base of concepts and methods over and above those contributed by the existing disciplines.

What if we established a new discipline to underpin team-based interdisciplinary research on complex societal and environmental problems? A discipline that sets out an organized approach to dealing more comprehensively with such problems?

As well as combining disciplinary perspectives, such a discipline could also encompass other aspects of researching complex social and environmental problems that are not covered by existing disciplines, particularly figuring out:

  • which disciplines have useful knowledge to contribute
  • which stakeholder perspectives would be valuable, such as from police and drug users in the case of illicit drug use
  • whether and how different elements of the problem are interconnected, such as examining all the impacts of criminalizing drug use (including on deterrence, punishment, willingness to seek help, and reintegration into paid employment)
  • the likely consequences of critical unknowns for understanding illicit drug use (such as rates and causes of cessation) or for changing illicit drug policy (such as the potential impact of a yet-to-be developed synthetic drug or an unforeseen change in popular culture which alters perceptions about illicit drug use)
  • how research can best support evidence-based change.

Particularly significant is that the relevant concepts and methods can be used for a wide range of problems, not just illicit drug use.

One aspect of such a discipline would be to provide a repository for the concepts and methods required to undertake the tasks described above that are currently no other discipline’s business. These new disciplinary experts would then join teams tackling complex problems to—among other things—make them aware of, and help them apply, the best available concepts and methods.

These currently unrecognised concepts and methods can be categorised into two broad groups:

  • concepts and methods for integration, ie., synthesis of disciplinary and stakeholder knowledge and understanding and managing critical unknowns
  • concepts and methods for implementation, ie., providing integrated research support (bringing together both what is known and an approach to critical unknowns) for policy and practice change.

I have therefore proposed that a new discipline could be called integration and implementation sciences (i2S).

A discipline is, of course, more than a repository of concepts and methods. Nevertheless, the relevant concepts and methods are currently highly fragmented by being scattered throughout the published and grey research literatures, so the task of developing a repository would be a good starting point for building the new discipline.

In addition, the process of identifying relevant integration and implementation concepts and methods could help build an i2S discipline identity. It could help interdisciplinarians tackling complex real world problems recognise commonalities with other groups, including transdisciplinarians, systems thinkers, action researchers, community operational researchers, sustainability scientists and so on. The aim of an i2S discipline identity is not to replace or subsume these other identities but to provide a conduit connecting them.

An i2S discipline could also provide an identity for so-called “T-shaped researchers,” who often do not identify with any of the above groups, although they share many of the same skills. Their name recognises not only their skills in a traditional discipline (the vertical bar), but also their ability to collaborate across disciplines (the horizontal bar). There is currently no unified community of T-shaped researchers sharing and promoting these “horizontal bar” skills.

The aim of i2S is to provide a unifying focus and rationale for banding together.

As Rick Szostak also points out in his blog post on why we need to listen to interdisciplinarity’s critics, the lack of cohesion among like-minded individuals and groups means that none has the critical mass to speak with authority about interdisciplinarity in policy discussions about funding, research or education.

I continue this argument next week by exploring what a new i2S discipline could learn from the discipline of statistics.

What do you think? Does the interdisciplinary skill set described here resonate with you? How do you describe yourself – as an interdisciplinary researcher? T-shaped researcher? Systems thinker? Or something else? What do you think about also describing yourself as an integration and implementation scientist?

To find out more:

Bammer, G. (2017). Should we discipline interdisicplinarity? Palgrave Communications, 3 (article 30). Online (DOI): 10.1057/s41599-017-0039-7

Biography: Gabriele Bammer 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 National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

16 thoughts on “Recognising interdisciplinary expertise”

  1. Gabriele, Thanks for such a useful post. I read the exchange about topic maps, or knowledge graphs, with great interest because I have also found them to be very useful tools to:
    1) explore a complex topical or thematic area of knowledge
    2) discover important links in information and patterns in a discipline or theme
    3) communicate at a macro-scale with others about wicked, complex and messy issues
    4) map between multi-attribute models and a real-world context as an interactive visual
    I just attended a conference on Knowledge Capture (K-Cap) last week and discovered that community has deep discourse on implementing the knowledge or topic maps, as does Library and Information Sciences. The tools to implement and explore the knowledge graphs are moderately accessible, what I’ve found is that interpreting the meaning is a challenge. Perhaps interpretation may be best completed using a participatory or team-based approach. And using the interpretive results as a diagnostic tool to inform dialogue, deliberation, or choice of action opens an interesting path to technology supported facilitiation with groups.
    It’s so nice to see that others are thinking about these ideas, I’ve been experimenting for several years and hadn’t found other researchers who were also interested in this topic and construct. Very nice to see there are others exploring the ideas for use in implementation. More importantly, I think your initial post about recognizing the I2S discipline is absolutely on the right track. Thank you for capturing very important ideas about how the knowledge-base of I2S researchers and practitioners is distinct from traditional disciplinary knowledge. And also for describing potential ways I2S may be able to document practices and knowledge in a more concrete and explicit way.
    Suzanne Pierce

  2. Gabrielle
    I am an evaluation practitioner not so much an academician, but many of the skills and issues you raise here (and elsewhere) resonate with work on the evaluation of complex interventions. Those who do that work with teams on specific problems but bring a skill set outside the technical to push the team to think about the multiple dimensions of the issue. Approaches such as Realist Evaluation, Developmental Evaluation and a variety of related techniques and methods are well aligned with I2S. The lack of a repository of methods and theories leaves a large hole that results in lots of reinvention and not enough time and space for invention and innovation. I have always thought that something along the lines of the Campbell Collaboration (a Change Collaboration perhaps?) focused on complexity and change would be a valuable space for sharing and building on theories and methods amongst those addressing complex social problems. Again that would seem to fit some of the observation and suggestions you have made on I2S. The literature on evaluation is rich in some of these domains and well worth considering.

    • Many thanks, Fred.That’s an interesting set of ideas. Some of my evaluation colleagues have also pointed out the overlaps, and, of course, any good research on complex problems will have an evaluation component. I agree that we need some sort of well-reviewed theory and methods bank and it’s an interesting idea to think through a Campbell Collaboration style initiative. Do you have any further thoughts on how that might work?

  3. Hi Gabriele,

    What I read into your piece is opportunity. Specifically, room to advance our thinking about knowledge organization and sharing.

    I would like to offer a working hypothesis that the emerging field of Knowledge Cartography relates quite closely, perhaps in this sense: let’s coin this term Expertise Cartography, which, in my view, is a branch of Knowledge Cartography.

    In my Knowledge Mapping contribution to this forum ( ), I did not have the opportunity to introduce Topic Maps, a vastly more complex way to organize information in a topic-centric manner. I can point to many different sources, and if asked, will provide links, but a somewhat complex starting point is this presentation:

    • Thanks Jack – that’s an intriguing suggestion. My quick reaction is that a topic map could be a great way to scope a complex problem to figure out what’s already known, which aspects should be dealt with and which disciplines and stakeholders should be involved. Does that sound right?

      • Gabriele, that’s precisely right. Please think of a topic map as an indexical structure into a vast and complex space of concepts and relations. Please also think of “topic mapping” more as a mindset, less as a particular technology. That thought, itself, is an entire conversation.

        To build on your quick reaction, a topic map is not just a map of some specific territory (a complex problem) since complex problems frequently entail topics which exist in other complex problems. For that reason, a topic map is more like a roadmap not just of your complex problem, but also of those other complex problems which intersect at specific topics. I think in terms of “wormholes among silos”.

        • Please let me build further on this statement: “…to figure out what’s already known…”. I would like to build on the notion of a boundary infrastructure for knowledge sharing, beyond indexical tools, and well into the social networking of knowledge cartography. I’ll start with this claim:

          “What is already known” is a complex, issue-laden phrase.

          Wikipedia attributes this quote to Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts”. If you engage in serious and deep knowledge and expertise cartography, you are bound to accumulate topics which are riddled with controversy.

          I will claim that each topic in a topic map, in fact, has a social life, one for which it must be “aware”, and one for which the user experience of being scientists, and, by extension, knowledge cartographers, must include the many comments, debates, supports and refutations associated with that topic. In my slide presentation, I shows that relationships among topics have biographies.

          When I say that a topic (indeed, any research report) must be “aware” of its social life, I am saying that each topic in a topic map will have biographical topics connected to it. We see this at PubMed where they mention “related reports”, but they don’t, for example, link to the blog posts about the paper, and, perhaps more importantly, a web page for a particular PubMed document which has been retracted does not say that. Knowledge cartography entails making all that is knowable (to the topic map) about a topic available.

          To anticipate the discouraging enormity of this task, I will argue that the Literature-based discovery process I describe in my presentation can help maintain the topic map.

          • Our comments crossed. That’s a helpful addition, but as you say the enormity is potentially daunting. Nevertheless it effectively exposes the complexity of the real-world – and that we always have to set boundaries around what we know and how it informs what we do. Gerald Midgley’s work is influential here – linking boundary setting to our values. For me the interesting issue is in relegating what’s outside our boundaries to the “unknown” (for us at least) and this is a major source of adverse unintended consequences and nasty surprises.

        • That’s helpful, but not easy to come to grips with! If I understand correctly, there may be (at least) two pathways in. Concrete thinkers can start with the technology and through application and coaching learn the mindset. Others who are comfortable with the mindset may need to be coached to learn the technology, which provides a way to demonstrate practical application of the mindset. Sounds very worthwhile.

          • Gabriele, you are orbiting the truly complex UX (user experience) issues here, for which we are all students, not masters. I believe that there is a “secret sauce” at work: Agile processes in which we all understand that the ecosystem will be subjected to strong evolutionary pressures in the early days.

            Indeed, the open source community in which I operate is that of concrete thinkers “hacking” ideas, failing fast.

            About the “mindset”, I believe that we have an opportunity to bootstrap appropriate attitudes over time. I’ll illustrate with this thought: if we simply install a portal which offers linear chat as the primary UX, we risk the very same issues we see in modern social networks, and, indeed, in the comments fields of unmoderated blogs. We simply do not have to go there. One view of where we can go is explored at my foundation’s website, but I must state that our ideas are not the only options; what I seek, going forward, is that those of us pursuing the evolution of boundary infrastructures, indeed, whole ecosystems supporting what this forum is about, will find a way to collaborate such that we are not creating yet more silos.

            Perhaps this forum can be adapted to exploring that space?

            • Now there’s a challenge that won’t lend itself to a quick reply, but that does lend itself to holiday reading and thinking – thanks!

  4. Hi Gabriele,
    Thanks for these thoughts on the challenges of IDR. In thinking about the role of the T-shaped researcher, it seems as if the stem of the T needs to have depth in some field. It is not clear that there is enough material in integrative modalities to constitute the stem of a T. Each person would still need to have a strong connection to a discipline. Secondly, it seems that high-level integration is the skill that most if not all doctoral candidates are taught and on which they are judged. Don’t we expect doctoral candidates to show original research in which they have integrated different approaches to a problem? In looking at the highly creative researchers in science, I have found that it is this very skill of integration that we value the most from researchers in any discipline. Teaching people to be open-minded and communicative could go a long way towards our goal without having to defend an i2S to what would have to be a very skeptical academic community.
    Caroline Wagner

    • Thanks Caroline, the issues you raise are ones that really need to be worked through in detail – and I’d love an opportunity to discuss them fully with you face-to-face. I suspect we may be thinking about different kinds of interdisciplinary researchers. The experience I draw on is leading large teams with a variety of disciplines and stakeholders to develop a set of understandings and recommendations for policy and practice change. In teasing out the skills involved, I enumerated more than enough to comprise a discipline in its own right. Statistics provides a useful analogy for me (and there’s a blog post on that coming next week). What you say also resonates, but I think pertains to a different kind of researcher working on a different kind of problem. Does that sounds about right to you?


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