In the beginning there were no ‘disciplines’, only questions: Questions to satisfy curiosity (“why do the stars move in the sky?”); questions to find the meaning of life (“where do we come from?”) questions to help us survive (“How can I live longer?”), and to do more with less (“how can I build better things, faster?”)
Some questions were too big, and we had to break them down into smaller ones. We needed to understand how a disease started (aetiology), how it developed (pathology), how it could be identified (diagnosis), and how it could be cured (treatment). Later we learned that dealing with a disease of the heart required different knowledge and expertise than a brain disease.
Tackling Today’s Global Challenges
Today, our world is more connected, and new ‘big questions’ surround us. Food and water shortages, climate change, energy crises, global poverty, gender equality, economic development, and peace among many others. Some questions that humankind is facing today are too new, and too big, to be addressed with the traditional disciplinary boundaries. On their own, climatologists cannot deal with climate change, food scientists cannot eradicate hunger and economists cannot abolish poverty. To benefit from scientific discovery, we need social scientists and greater collaboration.
We still haven’t broken down many of these modern questions into smaller questions, yet our approach to these questions are generally granular and disciplinary. Many solutions are likely to be on the boundaries between fields and disciplinary rivalries may prevent us from discovering them.
Take climate change. It’s a single problem: The temperature of Earth’s climate system is going up, posing an existential threat to life. To reverse it, we need to pump much less carbon into the air.
Better (Research) Together
But it’s a multifactorial phenomenon. As societies grew, we needed more food, more space, more jobs, more vehicles, more money, more energy. To create more space, we cut down the trees; to build more stuff and get access to more energy, we burnt more things and pumped the CO2 into the atmosphere. A disciplinary approach to climate change prevents us from addressing the main issue. We need geoscientists, ecologists, climatologists, sociologists, political scientists, engineers, doctors, biologists, experts in alternative energies, the international space station, psychologists, lawyers, information scientists, economists, and many other types of scientists and practitioners to work together. We need new energies, we need engines that run on these new energies, and we need the society to adopt these new technologies at a global level. Each research project focusing on climate change needs representation from several of these disciplines to make sure we keep asking the right questions.
Without two biologists, a physicist and a crystallographer coming together, the structure of DNA would not have been determined. Without an interdisciplinary approach, we would have never landed on the moon and the Internet would have never been invented. As an Editorial in Nature in 2015 suggests, “An interdisciplinary approach should drive people to ask questions and solve problems that have never come up before. But it can also address old problems, especially those that have proved unwilling to yield to conventional approaches.” This does not mean that interdisciplinary and disciplinary research are mutually exclusive. There is a place for each.
Interdisciplinary Research Delivers More Impact
The whole purpose of science is to satisfy curiosity and make life better. The academic impact of research – currently measured through citations – matters. But the main success of interdisciplinary research is in its ‘real-life’ impact.
An analysis in 2015 showed that interdisciplinary papers get fewer citations than disciplinary papers within the first three years, but more citations over 13 years. So, interdisciplinary research in general has a greater impact over a longer time span. These works also have wider societal impacts not captured by citations.
The publishing industry is slowly starting to catch up. Interdisciplinary researchers sometimes struggle to find the right journal. We have very few top-tier multi-disciplinary journals (such as Science, Nature and Nature Communications) with very high rejection rates, and several ‘broad-scope’ journals with much higher acceptance rates (such as PLOS One or Scientific Reports). With interdisciplinary research growing, publishers need to offer more opportunities for publishing this research.
Putting the Money Where the Impact Is
So why has it has taken so long for researchers to collaborate and tackle complex problems together? For one, the ‘specialism’ in science grew exponentially post-WWII. Disciplinary rivalries prevent collaboration, and the financial structure of research hasn’t been very supportive of collaboration. But now that approach is changing, and research is focusing more on societal problems. Funders have started to encourage researchers to work together across disciplines. There are plenty of opportunities for researchers to get involved in interdisciplinary research. Almost all of the new funding opportunities offered by UKRI focus on global challenges and researchers will have to reframe their thinking to answer these questions: “Researchers may have to look beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries to take advantage of the opportunities on offer... Due to the multidisciplinary nature of the new funding opportunities, social scientists must be prepared to work in partnership with researchers from other disciplines and organisations.”
In 2019 the SSH Integration report by the EU commission recommended that every research project should have representation from social sciences. Wellcome Trust advocated the formation of a ‘super-discipline’ of mental health science. China is advocating and funding interdisciplinary research and the NIH is making massive funding and incentives available to interdisciplinary research, including allowing more than one Primary Investigator for a research project.
Early career researchers looking for new opportunities are likely to find them on the boundaries between disciplines, where strategic priorities are set and funded, and where they can deliver real impact for addressing big issues.
About the AuthorMore Content by Dr. Arash Hejazi