How can institutions facilitate the serendipitous encounters that so often appear to characterise interdisciplinary careers? Is there an inherent hypocrisy in university leaders, research funders and policymakers claiming that they want to facilitate interdisciplinarity and then not creating the conditions that experienced interdisciplinarians say they need in order to foster this style of working?
Here I examine the importance of informal interactions, physical locations, the ‘small stuff’ and ‘slow research.’
Can we develop a shared understanding on how to engage in an interdisciplinary setting that will be useful in addressing current and future grand challenges?
Advice provided by interdisciplinary experts from 25 countries, across all continents, and with over 240 years cumulative experience (Kelly, et al., 2019) is combined here into succinct guidance that aims to empower researchers wishing to engage in interdisciplinary endeavors. The ten tips are also summarized in the figure below (focused on socio-ecological researchers).
What makes interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research challenging? What can go wrong and lead to failure? What has your experience been?
Modes of research that involve the integration of different perspectives, such as interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research, are notoriously challenging for a host of reasons. Interdisciplinary research requires the combination of insights from different academic disciplines and it is common that these:
bear the stamp of different epistemologies; and,
involve different types of data collected using different methods in the service of different explanations.
Where does the term incommensurability come from? What is its relevance to interdisciplinarity? Is it more than plain difference? Does incommensurability need to be reconceptualized for interdisciplinarity?
Incommensurability: its origins and relevance to interdisciplinarity
‘Incommensurability’ is a term that philosophers of science have borrowed from mathematics. Two mathematical magnitudes are said to be incommensurable if their ratio cannot be expressed by a number which is an integer. For example, the radius and the circumference of a circle are incommensurable because their ratio is expressed by the irrational number π.
What’s needed to enable the integration of concepts, theories, methods, and results across disciplines? Why is communication among experts important, but not sufficient? Interdisciplinary experts must also meta-cognize: both individually and as a team they must monitor, evaluate and regulate their cognitive processes and mental representations. Without this, expertise will function suboptimally both for individuals and teams. Metacognition is not an easy task, though, and deserves more attention in both training and collaboration processes than it usually gets. Why is metacognition so challenging and how can it be facilitated?
Interdisciplinary collaboration to tackle complex problems is challenging! In particular, interdisciplinary communication can be very difficult – how do we bridge the gulf of mutual incomprehension when we are working with people who think and talk so very differently from us? What skills are required when mutual incomprehension escalates into conflict, or thwarts decision making on important issues?
It is often at this point that collaborations lose momentum. In the absence of constructive or productive exchange, working relationships stagnate and people retreat to the places where they feel safest: their own disciplines, their offices, or the colleagues who are on their ‘side’. As a consequence, prospects for meaningful collaboration and integration dwindle.
One of the difficulties of interdisciplinary collaboration is being able to express the brilliant ideas swimming around in our own heads so that they can (a) be understood by others and (b) contribute to mutual insights and integration.
By Dena Fam, Scott Kelly, Tania Leimbach, Lesley Hitchens and Michelle Callen
What is required to plan, introduce and standardize interdisciplinary learning in higher education?
In a two-year process at the University of Technology Sydney we identified seven meta-considerations (Fam et al., 2018). These are based on a literature review of best practice of interdisciplinary programs internationally, as well as widespread consultation and engagement across the university. Each meta-consideration is illustrated by a word cloud and a key quotation from our consultations.
What lessons and challenges about institutionalising interdisciplinarity can be systematized from experiences in Latin American universities?
We analyzed three organizational structures in three different countries to find common challenges and lessons learned that transcend national contexts and the particularities of individual universities. The three case studies are located in:
Universidad de Buenos Aires in Argentina. The Argentinian center (1986 – 2003) was created in a top-down manner without participation of the academic community, and its relative novelty in organizational terms was also a cause of its instability and later closure.
Universidad de la República in Uruguay. The Uruguayan case, started in 2008, shows an innovative experience in organizational terms based on a highly interactive and participatory process.
Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. The Mexican initiative, which began in 1986, shows a center with a network structure in organizational terms where the focus was redefined over time.
All three centers showed an evolutionary path in which they simultaneously tried to adapt to the characteristics of the production of interdisciplinary knowledge and to the culture of the host institutions. Flexibility in this evolution seems to be a necessary condition for survival.
We found the following common lessons:
There is a bias in disciplinary-based academic assessment criteria, which does not consider the specific characteristics of interdisciplinary research and still punishes researchers who engage in collaborative research with partners outside academia. Specific criteria and assessment committees designed by interdisciplinary researchers are needed.
Interdisciplinary research requires long periods of preparation, mainly due to the collaborative dynamics, which also makes it necessary to revise assessment criteria.
Assessment committees should be made up of academic professionals specialized in interdisciplinary topics rather than a group of individuals representing different disciplines.
There is a need to explore new funding sources, especially external funds. So far, the main source of funding is still each national state.
There is also an urgency to promote academic publication to enhance the dissemination of interdisciplinary research and studies.
How can we improve interdisciplinary collaborations? There are many lessons to be learned from the Science of Team Science. The following ten lessons summarize many of the ideas that were shared at the International Science of Team Science Conference in Galveston, Texas, in May 2018.
1. Team up with the right people
On the most basic level, scientists working on teams should be willing to integrate their thoughts with their teammates’ ideas. Participants should also possess a variety of social skills, such as negotiation and social perceptiveness. The most successful teams also encompass a moderate degree of deep-level diversity (values, perspectives, cognitive styles) and include women in leadership roles.
Can philosophical insights be useful for interdisciplinary researchers in extending their thinking about the role of values and knowledge in research? More broadly, can a model or heuristic simplify some of the complexity in understanding how research works?
It’s common for interdisciplinary researchers to consider ontology and epistemology, two major arms of philosophical inquiry into human understanding, but axiology – a third major arm – is oft overlooked.
I start by describing axiology, then detail work by Michael Patterson and Daniel Williams (1998) who place axiology alongside ontology and epistemology. The outcome herein is to cautiously eject and then present a part of their work as a heuristic that may help interdisciplinary researchers to extend understanding on philosophical commitments that underlie research.
How can undergraduate and graduate students be helped to build their interdisciplinary collaboration capacity? In particular, how do they build capacity between the arts and other disciplines?
In 2018, I co-facilitated the annual, 3-day Emerging Creatives Student Summit, an event for approximately 100 undergraduate and graduate students from 26 universities organized by the Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities. Students’ majors ranged from the sciences, engineering, music, arts, and design.
Incommensurability is a recognized problem in interdisciplinary research. What is it? How can we understand it? And what can we do about it?
What is it?
Incommensurability is best illustrated by a real example. I once co-taught a class with a colleague from another discipline. Her discipline depends on empirical analysis of data sets, literally on counting things. I, on the other hand, am a philosopher. We don’t count. One day she said to our students, “If you don’t have an empirical element in what you’re doing, it’s not research.” I watched the students start nodding, paused for half a beat, and volunteered, “So, I’ve never done any research in my entire career.” “That’s right!” she replied, immediately, yet hesitating somewhere between a discovery and a joke.