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).

One university’s response to addressing complex real-world problems / Respuesta de una universidad para afrontar problemas complejos del mundo real

Community member post by Carlos Mataix, Javier Carrasco, Sara Romero and Marcel Bursztyn

A Spanish version of this post is available

How can universities more effectively address complex real-world problems, especially in sustainable development? What’s needed is not only disciplinary expertise, but also an ability to deal with systems problems involving wicked dynamic interrelations and a diversity of stakeholders, with varying levels of power to design and implement solutions. Researchers need to interact with a diversity of actors, inside and outside the academic community and to take into account diverse mental frameworks, languages, cultures and interests.

The Innovation and Technology for Development Centre at the Technical University of Madrid (itdUPM)

A growing number of faculty members at the Technical University of Madrid have sought to address this challenge, leading to the creation in March 2012 of the Innovation and Technology for Development Centre (itdUPM).

The Centre’s main characteristics are:

  • Its aim of contributing to the solution of sustainability problems through both collaborative research and postgraduate problem-oriented education, involving students from diverse disciplines
  • Voluntary affiliation of university faculty members and researchers to itdUPM, with more than 200 currently holding joint appointments or multiple affiliations between departments or research groups and itdUPM. A faculty member will undertake teaching duties for their department, disciplinary research within their research group, and action-focused research on sustainable development problems with members of the itdUPM network
  • Affiliates also include non-academic professionals and experts with a record of collaboration with itdUPM and its working groups
  • The Centre is organized as a network
  • Teams are not permanent and they are established as task forces of varying durations.

The Centre’s organization is represented in the figure below. The circles represent the network’s nodes:

  • Management Committee (19 lecturers and coordinators of Research Groups and PhD holders)
  • Standing Committees (working under the Management Committee to speed up processes and programmes)
  • Communities of Knowledge and Practices (communities focus on different disciplines)
  • Technical Team (fulfills the enabler node function composed by a group of individuals dedicated exclusively to itdUPM).
Carlos Mataix (biography)

Javier Carrasco (biography)

Sara Romero (biography)

Marcel Bursztyn (biography)

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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