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Trying to measure the immeasurable - exploring interdisciplinarity

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In the last couple of years I’ve been working on a small project called “DICE”, a project as tasked to determine the level of interdisciplinary research at the James Hutton Institute, and understand how the Institute could encourage more and better interdisciplinarity.  DICE stands for “Developing an Interdisciplinary Culture of Excellence”.  I’d like to share a few insights from the project, to reflect on what it means to ‘be’ interdisciplinary, and how to research and support interdisciplinarity.

When working on this project, it came as no surprise that people within the institute define interdisciplinarity differently. However, we had not expected the knock-on effects that this had for our research. Every step along the way –  from designing a questionnaire, to analysing and interpreting results, to actually trying to come up with metrics or indicators of interdisciplinary research – we found ourselves discussing how we could analyse something that people understood so differently. For example, some people think stakeholders from outside research needed to be involved in the project for it to be interdisciplinary (some authors call this ‘transdisciplinary’ research) while other people think that as long as different disciplines were part of the same project, it’s multidisciplinary. Or was that interdisciplinary? Confusion of terms seemed to reign everywhere!

We decided to use the definition of ‘interdisciplinarity’ given by some previous authors (Tress et al. 2005). Based on this definition, our survey of Institute staff showed that 84% of respondents currently work with others on interdisciplinary projects, or have had such experience in the past. Out of this set of respondents, 63% reported that their interdisciplinary experience combined natural and social science methodologies or approaches. Our opinion was that interdisciplinarity should not be reduced to working across the natural and social sciences but include computational sciences, humanities or medicine. This led us to suggest a distinction of ‘broad’ and ‘narrow’ interdisciplinarity, depending on how different or similar disciplines are.

Regardless of definitions, two points stood out for me, which were actually identified while speaking with interviewees external to the Institute. Although the interviews focussed on interdisciplinary working, the points that were repeatedly emphasised were not specific to interdisciplinary research.

1) (Interdisciplinary) research needs good communication within the team and a research institute as a whole. Many of the interviewees’ comments would apply to any good research project, team work and management, regardless of how many disciplines it spans. The quality of project management and communication (both internal and external) determines the quality of the result and outcomes (e.g. knowledge exchange, policy impact).

2) Good research delivers what the ‘client’ (i.e. funder) asked for. Companies want solutions to their problems; policy makers and agencies are looking for policy-relevant research: all these different clients want their needs to be taken seriously and research planned and communicated accordingly. Whether this occurs through disciplinary or interdisciplinary research is of less importance and interest to them.

This suggests to me that interdisciplinary research needs to follow good research practice generally, but may require extra attention to communication and interaction with the (non-academic) research users.

We also identified many other ‘supportive conditions’ for interdisciplinary research from the literature and the empirical data, ranging from aspects related to the individual (attitudes, skills, experience), to teams (team management, project design) to the institute level (physical building structure, accounting for time, career incentives). Based on these factors, the project provided recommendations for further promoting interdisciplinarity within the James Hutton Institute. Acting on these will not be easy: our institute contains many different ways of doing science, for many different purposes, and in many different places.  Therefore it will be interesting to see which of these are taken forward by individuals and management.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are the views of the author, and not an official position of the institute or funder.

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Printed from /blogs/segs/exploring-interdisciplinarity on 21/01/22 07:35:11 AM

The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.