The Study: Roy, E.D., A.T. Morzillo, F. Seijo, S.M.W. Reddy et al. 2013. The elusive pursuit of interdisciplinarity at the human–environment interface. BioScience 63:745–753.
The Big Question(s): Do today’s scientists talk enough and work together well enough to solve the world’s most pressing conservation problems?
Or do communication and institutional boundaries keep them siloed in traditional natural or social science disciplines?
Our greatest conservation challenges — from climate change to habitat loss for agriculture and other forms of development to pollution to overuse of water — all occur at the interface between humans and the environment. So solving such complex problems requires integrating natural and social sciences, from ecology to economics to political science to psychology.
Yet despite growing awareness of the need to break down disciplinary barriers — and despite the existence of funding programs, new graduate programs, and the like — truly interdisciplinary efforts remain elusive.
In order to uncover the hidden barriers and identify solutions, this study conducted the first comprehensive analysis of the perspectives and experiences of human–environment researchers.
Study Nuts and Bolts: Roy and his co-authors (including Conservancy senior scientist Sheila Walsh Reddy) represent a range of specialties, departments, and institutions; they developed a 76-question survey and sent it to several thousand natural and social scientists from around the world to get information on their experiences with and perspectives on interdisciplinary research. Most of the 323 respondents were from North America. As you would expect from a study of interdisciplinary research, the team doing the research is itself a model of the approach.
The Findings: The responses highlight a problem that may seem to be a case of academic hair-splitting, but that turns out to be fundamental to more effective conservation: the difference between interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary.
Many people, it turns out, have worked on teams with researchers from other fields. A truly interdisciplinary effort would break down the barriers between the disciplines to come up with new and transformative science.
More often than not, however, projects leave those barriers untouched. Just adding more specialists to a team might provide some insights, but the big breakthroughs come from synthesis among the disciplines, rather than addition.
Don’t misunderstand: striving for interdisciplinary research (and sometimes falling short) has reaped benefits. Survey respondents say these projects have yielded valuable benefits, including the development of new kinds of knowledge, new perspectives and intellectual stimulation.
But the costs are high. Academic institutions may be providing interdisciplinary training for students, but their support for senior researchers is lacking, as most do not credit interdisciplinary research toward tenure or promotion. Add the fact that researchers have relatively few options for publishing interdisciplinary results, and it becomes clear that taking on such projects is a considerable career risk, particularly for people early in their careers.
Environmental organizations have similar mismatch between their recognition of the need for human-environment researchers and institutional boundaries. Yet, this may be an area where change comes faster. Look around at conservation organizations today and they are beginning to fill their ranks with economists, human geographers and anthropologists.
What it All Means: The good news from this study: Both natural and social scientists understand the rewards, advantages, challenges and obstacles to interdisciplinary research.
The bad news: Advancements in science that have increased specialization have also made it more difficult for scientists to work with others outside of their specialty. The training for each scientific discipline has become so rigorous and technical that by the time researchers receive their graduate degrees, the communication barriers to working with colleagues in other fields become nearly insurmountable, made only worse by hide-bound departmental traditions.
One part of the solution may lie in training scientists to think more broadly early on, while they are still undergraduates. That may be key to training a generation of researchers with both interdisciplinary breadth and disciplinary depth. In addition, say Roy and his colleagues, interdisciplinary researchers need to communicate with each other, with administrators, with others in their specific fields, and with the broader public about the results and importance of their efforts.