Contributed by Mark Douglas
Note: this post serves as an extended annotation to the work of Eigenbrode and others (2007)
Complexity in the sciences requires integrated insights among scientific disciplines. Primarily, it’s important to figure out how much integration is called for when dealing with research problems. This requires consideration of both the nature of the problem and the preexisting mutual understanding that exists among the people and their differing disciplinary backgrounds. The clarification of assumptions is imperative to successful integration of efforts involving multiple disciplines. Research across traditions must involve the deliberate identification and exploration of fundamental scientific assumptions that are implicit or explicit within the traditions involved.
The remainder of this post will consider challenges that are prevalent in scientific research across disciplines. The challenges covered here relate to (1) the level of integration; (2) linguistic and conceptual divides; (3) what constitutes valid evidence; (4) the social role and societal context of research; (5) foundational perceptions of reality; (6) reductionist and holistic versions of science. These issues are described below.
1. Level of Integration
· Multidisciplinary research entails the study of a single system through multiple methods. The interpretation of findings is often grounded in a discipline that emerged to have a dominant influence.
· Interdisciplinary research requires greater coordination to address multiply scaled research problems. The methods and approaches are often synthesized for a more cohesive approach.
· Transdisciplinary research involves problems that are uniquely formulated which can’t be captured within existing domains. Epistemological perspectives are forged and adopted emerge that are unique to the project. If an epistemological framework emerges this may be termed a “metadiscipline”.
2. Linguistic and Conceptual Divides
· The use of special terms by scientists working in different disciplines may invoke subtle concepts, perspectives, standards and worldviews can serve as short hand within one group while baffling members of another.
3. Validation of Evidence
· The differences in the ways scientists gather, interpret, and share information may create misunderstanding in their perception and confusion across scientific practices.
4. Social Context of Research
· The degree to which citizens play a role in science and policy as well as the degree to which scientists want their work applied in society can confound the process of generating knowledge and solving problems.
5. Perceived Nature of the World
· For some, the world is an objective place independent from the stance somebody takes as a scientist. These worlds allow the pursuit of the “ideal of objectivity”.
· For others, the world envelopes somebody being a scientist to the extent that people, places and things are considered as co-creators of reality. These worlds call for science to be practiced reflexively.
6. Reductionism and Holism
· Reductionist science isolates and analyzes the elements of a system for reproduction in and prediction in models.
· Holistic science examines the emergent properties first-hand for greater understanding.
These differences outlined above call for much more consideration in the performance of scientific practices. Eigenbrode and others (2007) go further by offering probing questions that serve as tools in the identification of views that may or may not be shared by scientists working on problems together. Readers are encouraged to learn more by accessing their work at http://www.bioone.org/doi/pdf/10.1641/B570109.
Eigenbrode, S. D., O'rourke, M., Wulfhorst, J. D., Althoff, D. M., Goldberg, C. S., Merrill, K., ... & Bosque-Pérez, N. A. (2007). Employing philosophical dialogue in collaborative science. BioScience, 57(1), 55-64.
Contributed by Sarah Castle
From the tropical Andes of Peru to the icefields of Alaska, glaciers are rapidly melting. As ice melts, we are left with an annually resolved gradient in soil development. Substrates closest to the glacial terminus are the youngest while substrates furthest from the terminus are older. Deglaciated landscapes, with their barren rock and lack of vascular plant cover, often appear to be devoid of life. On the contrary glacial soils, albeit low diversity, are teeming with microscopic organisms that take up residence immediately following the retreat of ice. Looking at how soil biota and the soil environment develop with time in these relatively simple landscapes may help us to unravel the relationships between community structure and ecosystem function that may be otherwise obscured in more complex soil systems.
In my own work as a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Ecosystem and Conservation Sciences, I am examining microbial communities at glacial sites in both North and South American continents. It appears that young glacial soils host bacterial communities that are very different in terms of structure and function when compared to communities originating from older parts of the landscape. What is more interesting is that bacterial communities from distant locations (Peru, Washington, and Alaska) undergo successional change that results in a microbial community that is same regardless of where you are in the world.
Though glacial retreat is one specialized type of ecosystem disturbance, there are many other natural and human caused disturbances that influence microbial communities and their functions. The study of natural gradients may offer us some insight into how to maintain and restore degraded systems.
More information about Sarah Castle’s research can be found here: www.cfc.umt.edu/biogeochemistry