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.