Interdisciplinary science must break down barriers between fields to build common ground.
In Castlegar, Canada, there is a golf shop that also offers vacuum-cleaner repairs, and in the Czech Republic town of Kostelec nad Orlicí, a business will sell you both wine and underwear. Such odd couplings are humorous because of their curiously limited scope. There is nothing funny, after all, about a megastore that repairs equipment and sells golf clubs, wine, underwear and everything else under the Sun.
The binary combinations also lead us to assume something about the shop’s owners. Faced with a specific set of circumstances, these businesses redefine what we expect from a shop and offer something distinct.
There are greater problems in the world than what to do with your vacuum cleaner while you decide what make of balls to buy, but the principle is worth remembering as you browse this week’s special issue of Nature, which we dedicate to interdisciplinary science.
Most scientists are aware of the term, and many will have used it. But how many are truly engaged in it? Done correctly, it is not mere multidisciplinary work — a collection of people tackling a problem using their specific skills — but a synthesis of different approaches into something unique. It is the wine and underwear shop, not the hypermarket.
The best interdisciplinary science comes from the realization that there are pressing questions or problems that cannot be adequately addressed by people from just one discipline. Witness the gathering of the scientific tribes — and the merging of approaches — for the Manhattan Project to work on the atomic bomb. More recently, Nature has reported on ‘implementation science’, which combines medical expertise with local knowledge on how best to carry out programmes to improve public health.
An interdisciplinary approach should drive people to ask questions and solve problems that have never come up before. But it can also address old problems, especially those that have proved unwilling to yield to conventional approaches.
Enough of the rhetoric, what about the reality? It is hard to deny that the scientific system — from funding streams and academic rewards to university departments and journals — does not encourage much overlap between disparate subjects. It is easy to set up a ‘Centre for Interdisciplinary Research’, but who will be prepared to join it? If governments, funders and universities want to encourage more basic researchers to leave their trenches, then they need to make the no-man’s-land of interdisciplinarity a more welcoming place to build a career. The obstacles are many, as we discuss in the pages that follow.
Some groups have found ways to overcome these obstacles, and some high-quality interdisciplinary work is under way. What are the key lessons from these successes?
Interdisciplinary science takes longer than conventional projects, and that makes it more expensive. Funders most accept and embrace this and hold their nerve if the pay-off from individual projects takes longer than expected.
True interdisciplinary science cannot be rushed, not least because the best course of investigation is rarely clear at the outset. Research questions must be assessed and decided with input from all involved. An interdisciplinary project cannot exist as one main subject that sucks in the majority of the resources and leaves the partners as orbiting satellites.
Communication is crucial. The varying use of language across disciplines might seem a superficial problem, but it is one that must be solved, or misunderstandings will undermine the foundations of the project. There must also be no hierarchy, or perceived hierarchy. All involved must be confident that colleagues from other disciplines use equal academic rigour and scientific standing, even if the methods used in rival fields seem alien. It takes time to see the value in other approaches. It takes an open mind to appreciate an appliance-mending golf shop.