Contributed by Doug Brugger and Jacob Lucero
The first meeting of the ICN seminar for spring 2014 featured Dr. Ric Hauer, the University of Montana director of the Institute on Ecosystems and Professor of Limnology at the Flathead Lake Biological Station. Dr. Hauer has an accomplished background in interdisciplinary research; he often brings his expertise in stream ecology to collaborative efforts that tackle science questions at the whole-ecosystem scale. Dr. Hauer opened with a diagram that illustrates where interdisciplinary research lives in the academic landscape:
Academic careers start at the top of the figure, with broad exposure to many topics. Researchers then dive deeper into their discipline, sub-discipline, or sub-sub-sub-discipline so that they can answer questions at the frontier of their field. Yet they will find many important questions that their specialized knowledge can’t answer. Researchers must then reach out to those in other disciplines so that these questions might be answered. And just like that, interdisciplinary research is born.
This type of work is not without challenges. Dr. Hauer stressed that interdisciplinary research takes an investment of time – time which could be spent diving deeper into one’s own discipline – to build relationships with collaborators. Interdisciplinary research requires communication, organization, and trust (though a popular catalyst for the trust reaction is a solution of carbohydrates and ethanol in water). Yet the rewards are invaluable, because time spent on interdisciplinary collaborations is time spent thinking with others. These efforts will spark ideas, questions, and (eventually) answers that might never have occurred to the solo researcher. This quote from science author Dorion Sagan illustrates the importance of interdisciplinary science:
Nature no more obeys the territorial divisions of scientific academic disciplines than do continents appear from space to be colored to reflect the national divisions of their human inhabitants. For me, the great scientific satoris, epiphanies, eurekas, and aha! moments are characterized by their ability to connect.
Interdisciplinary collaboration allows researchers to tackle otherwise inaccessible problems. Advances in biomedical technology illustrate this potential. The expertise of physiologists, medical doctors, physicists, engineers, computer programmers, and robotics specialists are combined to produce breakthrough devices such as pace-makers and prosthetics. Although individual expertise can be quite myopic, drawing upon the knowledge and proficiencies of others can provide the insight and skill required to solve complex problems that span disciplines. Because they often return broadly-appealing, high impact deliverables, funding agencies are increasingly favorable towards collaborative proposals.
Currently, the majority of research dollars awarded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) are granted to proposals with multiple investigators. In 1982, only 13% of NSF awards were granted to proposals with multiple authors. By 2001, this figure had nearly quadrupled to 50% and continues to rise (see graph below). In other words, collaborative proposals are more likely to be funded than proposals with a single investigator.
The graph depicts the relative value (USD) and number of single (dark bars) vs. multiple-investigator (light bars) proposals funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). In 1982, only 13% of NSF awards were granted to projects with multiple investigators. By 2001, this figure had nearly quadrupled to 50%. Take home: it pays to collaborate! Reference: National Research Council. 2004. Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research, p. 118. Washington DC: The National Academies Press.
The Interdisciplinary Collaboration Network (ICN) provides a forum that helps researchers from all backgrounds make connections necessary to tackle problems that span disciplines. The “ICN PARTNERS” tab on the ICN’s homepage is a link to a searchable database that lists experts in a number of fields by their skills and research interests. We encourage all researchers to use this tool to facilitate their search for a collaborator. In addition, we invite you to join our network and create a profile – your expertise may be exactly what is needed to tackle an otherwise inaccessible problem.
Contributed by Megan Nasto
Interdisciplinary collaborative research is widely recognized for its importance in advancing scientific knowledge. Many of the great discoveries and achievements of our time were born from collaborative efforts between people from diverse fields. The discovery of the Higgs Boson, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessments, the mapping of the ocean floor, combatting pathogens via vaccines and antibiotics, and the discourse of gender performance are just a few assorted examples that exemplify the magnitude of interdisciplinary collaborations. It comes as no surprise that great work often occurs when two groups, given the same problem, ask different questions, pick up on different details, use different metaphors to describe the problem, and come into the situation with different perspectives. This is the strength of interdisciplinary collaborative research. The mixing of different frameworks of thinking is a great way to stimulate the development of new approaches to a problem that a single group, or field, wouldn’t be able to do. However, it appears that the majority of interdisciplinary collaborations occur between established professionals or academics that already have a solid educational background and a steady profession. We believe this begs the question, why? Why must the vast majority of great collaborative endeavors occur once we have already made a name for ourselves in our own respective fields?
We believe that interdisciplinary collaborative research is valuable not only for its immediate benefits to scientific knowledge, but also for keeping minds open to different perspectives, and the door open to diverse career paths. It is this aspect of interdisciplinary collaborations that has the potential to greatly benefit graduate students and early career professionals. Interdisciplinary collaborations at the graduate student level may be the perfect introduction to team-based approaches common in many private and governmental positions, which are career directions that many students at universities eventually take. Not only can interdisciplinary collaborations give graduate students the knowledge and the vocabulary to understand other fields of study, but it can also provide necessary communication skills and broader perspectives. These are a few of the resources that the Interdisciplinary Collaborative Network (ICN) hopes to provide to its graduate student members.
The ICN comprises over twenty graduate students from various departments including biology, ecology, chemistry, geography, public health, and journalism. We are a group that is seeking to be anything but the ordinary graduate student. We want to create a community for ourselves in which we can connect with each other, share resources, and support our own journeys through the academic world. We seek to transcend the average graduate student requirements and accomplish more than what is simply asked of us. We want to generate an environment in which we are encouraged to explore who we are as scientists, researchers, or professionals. Most importantly, we want to work with each other to ask pertinent questions, seek rational solutions, and make the next big advancement; all through interdisciplinary collaborative research.