Three lessons from statistics for interdisciplinarians and fellow travellers

Community member post by Gabriele Bammer

Gabriele Bammer (biography)

In last week’s blog post on recognising interdisciplinary expertise I argued that forming a new i2S discipline could help embed interdisciplinarity and related approaches (transdisciplinarity, systems thinking, action research, T-shaped research and others) in the academic mainstream. But how would such a discipline work? What are the challenges to establishing an i2S discipline and how could they be overcome?

The discipline of statistics provides three productive analogies. Key to success in both statistics and i2S are: collaboration, dedicated journals to publish advances in concepts and methods, and lobbying for effective application of the discipline.

1. Collaboration

For both statistics and i2S to be effective, collaboration is essential. Both enhance research across a wide range of problem areas—health, the environment, education and more. Statisticians contribute to teams that require expertise in quantitative reasoning. They assist teams in designing studies and in interpreting the outcomes.

Integration and implementation scientists contribute to teams requiring expertise in exploring a complex problem more comprehensively. They assist teams in figuring out how best to approach the problem and its interconnections, which disciplines and stakeholders need to be involved, how to bring together the various disciplinary and stakeholder perspectives, how to take into account what’s not known about the problem, how to support those charged with acting on the problem, and other related issues.

2. Dedicated journals to publish advances in concepts and methods

If a statistician’s work in a project team leads to advances in the statistical concepts or methods they brought to the table, the innovation is reported in the statistics disciplinary literature, not in the literature about the problem they were working on. The advance then becomes available to all other statisticians to apply, as appropriate, in the full range of problem areas, be they in education, environment, security, health or elsewhere.

i2S needs similar journals to share relevant concepts and methods among researchers undertaking interdisciplinary explorations of various complex problems. If an integration and implementation scientist in a team working on illicit drug use developed an innovative scoping technique to identify all the relevant disciplines and stakeholders, for instance, there is currently no journal through which this advance could be made available to others tackling, for example, biodiversity loss, obesity, or poverty reduction.

Instead, relevant tools tend to be published in the literature about the societal or environmental problem, in the grey literature, or not published at all. As well as making concepts and methods hard to find, this means that any research team’s knowledge about the tools that are already available is poor. In turn, that leads to a lot of reinventing of concepts and methods for, for instance, engaging stakeholders and translating evidence for practitioners. It also means that existing concepts and methods tend to stagnate rather than being continuously improved.

Laying the foundations for a future journal of i2S concepts and methods is one of the purposes of this Integration and Implementation Insights blog.

3. Lobbying for effective application of the discipline

The importance of collaboration means that it is not enough for statistics and i2S to simply exist; each needs to be effectively brought into the relevant partnerships. In recent years, statisticians have banded together to ensure that statistical understanding and tools are appropriately deployed. For example, because analysis cannot fix poor design, they have effectively lobbied and educated for inclusion of statisticians at project start-up, rather than the previous practice of just bringing them in at the later analysis stage. As a result, the statistical approaches in grant applications and papers now come under close scrutiny, with funders and journal editors often requesting specific reviews by expert statisticians.

Similarly, it will not be enough for i2S just to be established; action will also be required to ensure that its members have influence in research on complex societal and environmental problems. The role of i2S is to raise the bar in teams tackling these issues. An immediate task is to move teams away from reinventing concepts and methods to employing and building on those that already exist.

A major hurdle to promoting such adoption of i2S is again fragmentation—this time the lack of a unified academic community to drive uptake of i2S, which was described in more detail in my blog post last week.

What would success look like?

Imagine multiple research teams tackling complex societal or environmental problems—such as a team project on fisheries depletion in Sweden, a government research team investigating firearms control in Brazil, a graduate student program tackling obesity in the USA, and multiple research groups in a public-private partnership addressing poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.

At least one member of each team is an integration and implementation scientist, and belongs to a vibrant international academic community striving for continuous improvement in ways to tackle complex societal and environmental problems. Their work has a strong basis in relevant concepts and methods.

Through text books, journals, and an open-access online knowledge bank, they have access to, and help upgrade, a repository of concepts and methods for dealing more comprehensively with complex problems. They provide their teams with practical assistance in choosing and applying the best concepts and methods for their investigations, and use that experience to evaluate and improve those tools.

Their performance for tenure and promotion is assessed in an analogous way to that of statisticians: including by the concepts and methods they have developed and improved and by their ability to contribute to the team in progressing understanding and action on complex societal and environmental problems; all evidenced through publications and grants. Critically, the assessment is conducted by peers from the i2S discipline.

Do you think that establishing an i2S discipline could provide a break-through in the way interdisciplinary and related researchers are embedded in the academic mainstream? Are there other ways to recognise the specialist skills required to 1) weave disciplinary and other insights into a more comprehensive understanding of the problem as a whole, and 2) provide effective options for action? What would it take for you to identify as an integration and implementation scientist? Are there other lessons or analogies that building an i2S discipline could draw on?

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).

Why we should not ignore interdisciplinarity’s critics

Rick Szostak (biography)

Community member post by Rick Szostak

A handful of recent books have made surprising and misguided critiques of interdisciplinarity. How should interdisciplinarians respond? It is tempting simply to ignore such works. As academics, we too often encounter publications that are sadly ignorant of relevant literatures. Yet it seems to me that there are a couple of key reasons not to ignore them.

First, there is clearly an audience for these works, or they would not be published. Continue reading

Epistemological obstacles to interdisciplinary research

Community member post by Evelyn Brister

Evelyn Brister (biography)

What causes interdisciplinary collaborations to default to the standard frameworks and methods of a single discipline, leaving collaborators feeling like they aren’t being taken seriously, or that what they’ve brought to the project has been left on the table, ignored and underappreciated?

Sometimes it is miscommunication, but sometimes it is that collaborators disagree. And sometimes disagreements are both fundamental and intractable.

Often, these disagreements can be traced back to different epistemological frameworks. Epistemological frameworks are beliefs about how particular disciplines conceive of what it is they investigate, how to investigate it, what counts as sufficient evidence, and why the knowledge they produce matters. Continue reading

Promotion and tenure policies for interdisciplinary and collaborative research

Community member post by Julie Thompson Klein and Holly J. Falk-Krzesinski

Julie Thompson Klein’s biography

Expanding interest in interdisciplinary and collaborative research across universities, funding agencies, professional organizations, and science-policy bodies has prompted growing attention to the academic reward system. Promotion and tenure loom large in this discussion. The acronym “P&T” in this blog is the customary abbreviation for “promotion and tenure” in North America, but the practices are international. All collaborative research is not interdisciplinary, and all interdisciplinary research is not team based. However, they are coupled increasingly in order to address complex scientific and societal problems, while also fostering innovation and partnerships bridging the academy and industry. Continue reading

Undertaking bi-cultural research: key reflections from a Pākehā (non-Māori) New Zealander

Community member post by Maria Hepi

Maria Hepi (biography)

What does it mean to be a bi-cultural researcher? The following eight key reflections are based on working bi-culturally in New Zealand.

I am a Pākehā (non-Māori) New Zealander and started learning Māori language and culture at university in 1995. Previously I had little to no contact with te reo Māori (the Māori language) or te ao Māori (the Māori world and culture). During my studies I became involved in kapa haka (the university Māori cultural club), and as such was exposed to a whole new world.

When I embarked on my journey into te ao Māori I naively thought I would be only learning about the Māori language and culture, however I also learnt what it meant to be Pākehā. I had been blind to my own culture as I had nothing to reflect it back to me. Continue reading

Sharing mental models is critical for interdisciplinary collaboration

Community member post by Jen Badham and Gabriele Bammer

Jen Badham (biography)

What is a mental model? How do mental models influence interdisciplinary collaboration? What processes can help tease out differences in mental models?

Mental models

Let’s start with mental models. What does the word ‘chair’ mean to you? Do you have an image of a chair, perhaps a wooden chair with four legs and a back, an office chair with wheels, or possibly a comfortable lounge chair from which you watch television? Continue reading