Recognising interdisciplinary expertise

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Gabriele Bammer (biography)

Community member post 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).

Epistemological obstacles to interdisciplinary research

Community member post by Evelyn Brister

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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

Synthesis centers as critical research infrastructure

Community member post by Andrew Campbell

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Andrew Campbell (biography)

When we think of research infrastructure, it is easy to associate astronomers with telescopes, oceanographers with research vessels and physicists with particle accelerators.

But what sort of research infrastructure (if any) do we need in order to do more effective multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research on big, complex, ‘wicked’ challenges like climate change or food security?

Some eminent colleagues and I argue in a new paper (Baron et al., 2017) that the answers include: Continue reading

Productive multivocal analysis – Part 2: Achieving epistemological engagement

Community member post by Kristine Lund

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Kristine Lund (biography)

In a previous blog post I described multivocalityie., harnessing multiple voices – in interdisciplinary research and how research I was involved in (Suthers et al., 2013) highlighted pitfalls to be avoided. This blog post examines four ways in which epistemological engagement can be achieved. Two of these are positive and two may have both positive and negative aspects, depending on how the collaboration plays out.

Once a team begins analyzing a shared corpus from different perspectives — in our case, it was a corpus of people solving problems together — it’s the comparison of researchers’ respective analyses that can be a motor for productive epistemological encounters between the researchers. Continue reading

Productive multivocal analysis – Part 1: Avoiding the pitfalls of interdisciplinarity

Community member post by Kristine Lund

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Kristine Lund (biography)

Many voices are expressed when researchers from different backgrounds come together to work on a new project and it may sound like cacophony. All those voices are competing to be heard. In addition, researchers make different assumptions about people and data and if these assumptions are not brought to light, the project can reach an impasse later on and much time can be wasted.

So how can such multivocality be positive and productive, while avoiding trouble? How can multiple voices be harnessed to not only achieve the project’s goals, but also to make scientific progress? Continue reading

Toolkits for transdisciplinary research

Community member post by Gabriele Bammer

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Gabriele Bammer (biography)

If you want to undertake transdisciplinary research, where can you find relevant concepts and methods? Are there compilations or toolkits that are helpful?

I’ve identified eight relevant toolkits, which are described briefly below and in more detail in the journal GAIA’s Toolkits for Transdisciplinarity series.

One toolkit provides concepts and methods relevant to the full range of transdisciplinary research, while the others cover four key aspects: (i) collaboration, (ii) synthesis of knowledge from relevant disciplines and stakeholders, (iii) thinking systemically, and (iv) making change happen. Continue reading