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).

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

Learning from Google about inter- and transdisciplinary leadership

Community member post by Janet G. Hering

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Janet G. Hering (biography)

Like most engineers, the Google leadership had assumed that the leader of an engineering team must be at least as competent technically as the members of the team. As Laszlo Bock described in his 2015 book Work Rules!, however, a data-driven assessment disproved this assumption. The counter-intuitive result of “Project Oxygen” was that having “important technical skills that help advise the team” only ranked number eight in the list of key attributes differentiating the most from the least effective managers.

This is very good news for leaders of inter- and transdisciplinary synthesis projects since it’s highly unlikely that these leaders could have all the subject expertise relevant to their projects. If subject expertise is not the most important characteristic of leadership, then what kind of expertise should leaders have and what kind of roles do they play? How important are leaders and leadership in such synthesis projects? Continue reading

Two barriers to interdisciplinary thinking in the public sector and how time graphs can help

Community member post by Jane MacMaster

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Jane MacMaster (biography)

After one year or so delivering seminars that share practical techniques to help navigate complexity to public sector audiences, I’ve observed two simple and fundamental barriers to dealing more effectively with complex, interdisciplinary problems in the public sector.

First, is the lack of time to problem-solve – to pause and reflect on an issue, to build a deeper understanding of it, to think creatively about it from different angles, to think through some ideas, to test out some ideas. There is too much else going on.

Second, is that it’s often quite difficult to put one’s collective finger on what, exactly, the problem is. Continue reading

The ‘methods section’ in research publications on complex problems – Purpose

Community member post by Gabriele Bammer

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Gabriele Bammer (biography)

Do we need a protocol for documenting how research tackling complex social and environmental problems was undertaken?

Usually when I read descriptions of research addressing a problem such as poverty reduction or obesity prevention or mitigation of the environmental impact of a particular development, I find myself frustrated by the lack of information about what was actually done. Some processes may be dealt with in detail, but others are glossed over or ignored completely.

For example, often such research brings together insights from a range of disciplines, but details may be scant on why and how those disciplines were selected, whether and how they interacted and how their contributions to understanding the problem were combined. I am often left wondering about whose job it was to do the synthesis and how they did it: did they use specific methods and were these up to the task? And I am curious about how the researchers assessed their efforts at the end of the project: did they miss a key discipline? would a different perspective from one of the disciplines included have been more useful? did they know what to do with all the information generated? Continue reading