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:
What kinds of change can implementation of research findings contribute to? Sometimes the aim is to make change happen, while at other times research implementation is in response to particular proposed or ongoing change.
Making change happen
Two ways of making change happen that are important for research impact are: 1) contributing to the on-going quest for improvement and 2) combatting practices or behaviours that have negative outcomes for individuals or society.
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.
As a researcher, do you seek to inform change, drive it or trigger it? Informing change involves providing the best facts and evidence, driving change means working to achieve a particular research-based outcome, and triggering change involves solving a problem that sets in train a chain of effects that go far beyond the research itself. They involve different skills and have different risks.
If you have developed a new dialogue method for bringing together insights from different disciplinary experts and stakeholders, or a refined modelling technique for taking uncertainty into account, or an innovative process for knowledge co-creation with government policy makers, where can you publish these to get maximum exposure and uptake?
In a recent special issue of the journal Nature on interdisciplinarity (17 September 2015, p313-315), Rick Rylance criticised “arcane debates about whether research is inter-, multi-, trans-, cross- or post-disciplinary”, opining “I find this faintly theological hair-splitting unhelpful.” Does he have a point?
The aim of this site is to host a global conversation about… well one of the challenges is that we don’t yet have an agreed name for our topic.
This is a conversation for you if your research does some of the following:
Gets people from different disciplines working together
Builds models of complex social and environmental problems
Helps policy makers use research evidence
Figures out ways to manage value conflicts
Finds ways to identify unknown unknowns
Maps interconnections between problem elements
Works with business to build better products
Involves community groups in defining the problem
Worries about adverse unintended consequences
Realises that context matters.
I think about these practices as integration and implementation sciences. You might call them systems thinking, action research, interdisciplinarity or transdisciplinarity, implementation science, post-normal science, mode 2 research, project management, complex systems science or a host of other terms.