Lydia Cole (@lydcole, University of St Andrews, Chair of British Ecological Society Conservation Ecology Group, @BESConservation) and Althea Davies (@PalyAlly, University of St Andrews, Co-chair of British Ecological Society Palaeoecology Group (@BES_Palaeo) share their experience on how to improve the success of interdisciplinary research across the natural and social sciences. An edited version of this appeared as a toolkit article in The Niche (March 2020, pp18-19). We are pleased to be working on a new Guide to Better Science for interdisciplinary projects, so keep a lookout for that in 2021!
Ecologists who find themselves working on the human dimensions of ecological change and conservation face a dilemma. On the one hand, understanding human-nature relations is now recognised as essential for effective ecosystem governance and conflict mitigation, including in recent prominent reports like the State of Nature 2019 (Hayhow et al., 2019) and IPBES (Lundquivst et al., 2015). After all, “many of the challenges we are trying to tackle in the … world do not respect disciplinary boundaries” (Mark Reed’s Fast Track Impact post, 2017). On the other hand, many papers list the challenges of interdisciplinary working: it takes longer and is therefore more expensive; the best course of action is seldom clear at the outset and may be highly debated throughout, and it may not be a good career move for ECRs because of perceived obstacles, ranging from obtaining funding to publication impacts (Nature Special Issue on Interdisciplinarity, 2015). Given these tensions, it is perhaps unsurprising that progress to ‘mainstream’ social science within ecology and conservation has been slow (Newing, 2010; Bennett et al., 2017). This situation is changing as publication norms shift (e.g. Gaston et al., 2019). There remains some catching up to do, however, since many researchers learn ‘on the job’ or from relatively few experienced colleagues, rather than finding established support and training networks, which raises the risk of uncomfortable criticism where natural scientists ‘borrow’ from social sciences (Martin, 2019). This was our experience and motivated us to run a workshop at the 2019 BES Annual Meeting to share challenges and solutions for working across the natural and social sciences as an ecologist. Here we present the main points raised in the literature and discussed at the workshop on the topic of interdisciplinary working (Table 1).
But what is an interdisciplinary project, and how does it differ from multi- or transdisciplinary endeavours? Though in practice the nature of a project may not be clear-cut, Newing (2010) provides some useful definitions: multidisciplinary refers to the use of two or more disciplines in parallel; transdisciplinary refers to transformative approaches involving the creation of novel perspectives that transcend disciplinary boundaries, and interdisciplinary refers to more integrated approaches where different disciplines inform and intertwine with one another to answer a question that could not be solved by a single discipline alone. Here, we focus on the latter. Whilst various of the challenges and solutions raised below are good practice across these three project approaches, the goal of integrated working makes these practices even more critical for interdisciplinary projects.
Table 1. Ten major challenges encountered in an interdisciplinary research project, and potential mechanisms for managing them.Note that some challenges are distinct to particular stages of a project, while others apply throughout.
|1. Selecting an appropriate funder|
– Engage with funders: check documentation on approach to interdisciplinarity, contact to seek clarification, e.g. on risk management, on identifying appropriate reviewers; consider getting experience as a reviewer of interdisciplinary proposals yourself
|2. Building the team (around the problem)|
– While a “problem cannot be defined until a working team is in place… it is impossible to know how deeply to involve specific team members until the problem has been defined” (Nicolson et al. 2002: 380, cited in Pooley et al. 2014: 25). Therefore, engage early and equally, and involve social scientists to enhance understanding and not simply to communicate findings.
– Consider selecting people whose work you know, rather than necessarily inviting leaders in each discipline (the ‘Tinder’ approach to selection; Reed 2017)
– Include an interdisciplinary expert in the team-building process
– Include people who are open to being challenged: an evaluation of the NERC/ESRC interdisciplinary studentship scheme reported that participants saw the scheme as “exposing researchers to new ways of doing things and new ways of asking questions, often forcing them to rethink quite radically core belief systems” (ESRC Research Evaluation Committee 2005: 33)
|3. Establishing effective leadership|
– Ideally the project lead will be firm but enabling: creating space and mutual respect for all, leaving egos aside
– See Forming your team (text)
|4. Not knowing what goals or outputs are realistic and achievable at the outset|
– Identify a potential funder who accepts this form of uncertainty/risk as an inherent part of the project
– Identify key risks and ‘best practice’ mitigation strategies (see text);
– Include someone with prior interdisciplinary experience in the team
|5. Estimating time requirements and ensuring sufficient time is provided|
– Extra time is needed to establish good working relations and procedure, and for project management; this requires patience and understanding from managers and funders, who may see it as ‘unproductive’ time
– Expect the balance of contributions from different disciplines to vary at different stages of the project
– Be as generous as possible with time allocated for researchers (rather than PIs): they are often most squeezed
– Set clear milestones and regularly revisit these to minimise slippage, particularly for producing outputs
|6. Finding shared understanding of language/finding a shared language|
– Epistemological pluralism as the project develops is essential: it “recognizes that, in any given research context, there may be several valuable ways of knowing, and that accommodating this plurality can lead to more successful integrated study” (Miller et al. 2008)
– See Reading groups (text)
|7. Maintaining communication|
– Regular, face to face meetings are invaluable
– Encourage reflexivity to understand how and why new or contradictory insights emerge
– Establish routine fieldwork communication methods to connect those in the field with institution-based collaborators, particularly if fieldwork is prolonged – see Communications (text)
|8. Maintaining disciplinary rigour|
– Each discipline should interpret findings before sharing and integrating
– Combining disciplinary lines of evidence too early can result in bias and ‘cherry-picking’, particularly if there are power imbalances between disciplines or researchers
– Regularly revisit original goals to avoid (disciplinary or project) ‘drift’
|9. Combining natural and social sciences|
– Difficulties often arise when seeking to compare and combine quantitative and qualitative data
– Seek examples in the growing literature, particularly journals which encourage or require interdisciplinarity
– Expect differences, jointly discuss whether these are due to disciplinary bias/filters or whether they are meaningful, e.g. reflect how different disciplines or stakeholders perceive problems, which may cause tension between disciplines and/or in the real world (e.g. conservation models often assume ‘rational’ human behaviour, Pooley et al. 2014)
|10. Competing publishing expectations and norms|
-Develop a ‘road map’ of intended publications, recognising that not all disciplines will play an equal role in all outputs (see text)
-Ensure clear communication of decisions made by corresponding author/project lead at every stage and pre-emptively (with paper trail) -Ensure time for input from ‘supporting’ disciplines to inform interpretations
Developing the initial idea
The first steps in developing an interdisciplinary project are critical – they must involve enabling conversations, coherent leadership, skills particular to the question in mind, open mindsets and attention paid to establishing common ground (Rylance 2015). It can be difficult to specify the precise methods that will be needed or the likely outputs, particularly when a project involves human perspectives and behaviours that have a bearing on ecology, but which have yet to be studied. Outlining methods that are considered most appropriate to the socio-ecological context (i.e. social science tools, ecological survey design) and stating that the precise choice will be determined following preliminary engagement with stakeholders indicates the likely direction of travel and preparedness to adapt. This approach represents some risk to potential funding bodies, so consideration must be paid to which funders are more risk tolerant, and to how you will mitigate identified risks in your application.
Forming the ‘dream team’
Creating a coherent, adaptive team with a shared vision for the project’s goals and outputs is an important component in its success. Building effective relationships within the team needs good leadership, trust, receptiveness and a willingness to learn across the board. Success is heavily dependent on the quality of interpersonal relations. Meetings and workshops are important to establish a sense of group identity and responsibility, including social occasions and fieldtrips outside a formal office environment (Marzano et al. 2006). Demonstrating methods in the field to colleagues can also be effective at ‘teaching’ rather than ‘telling’, and in engendering a deeper understanding of the requirements of different disciplines (Marzano et al. 2006). Central to a cohesive team is a strong project lead/Principal Investigator, who is committed to overseeing progress and putting structures in place to ensure regular feedback from the working team; managing and guiding, rather than producing the data; giving space to everyone and ensuring each person is clear on their specific role and responsibilities within the project; and understanding when external support might be needed, e.g. bringing new people in to fill previously un-identified gaps, administering an external advisory team to provide independent feedback. The project lead is also likely to be responsible for allocating time resources within the project. We recommend providing more time for those doing the majority of the work, i.e. often un-named field researchers, and less for the named leaders, whose role frequently involves oversight and support rather than data generation or analysis. Team members can be encouraged to view one another as ‘critical friends’, providing open and constructive feedback on each other’s outputs. But vital to this relationship, and team cohesion, is that egos are not invited to the table.
Communication and developing a shared language
Understanding different disciplinary perspectives is often more difficult than anticipated. However, navigating the disciplinary ‘territories’ across the project is essential, with each individual both acknowledging and communicating the strengths and weaknesses of their own discipline, whilst exploring those of other team members to find common ground and learn to work together (Marzano et al. 2006). Reading groups can provide an effective forum for cross-disciplinary learning: reading literatures of other disciplines facilitates collaboration, including familiarisation with vocabulary and writing conventions (Pooley et al. 2014) and it encourages team members to teach rather than just present their disciplinary perspective (e.g. approach and philosophy) (Marzano et al. 2006). We find that a regular reading group is an effective way of finding/developing a common language within the group, where members are free to ask any question. It is important to create a ‘safe’ environment where there is no wrong or ‘silly’ question – everyone must be encouraged to ask and answer all questions to avoid misconceptions and assumptions, and to actively break down any deference towards a particular project discipline. A common language refers to both developing a shared understanding within the group, e.g. clarifying definitions (disciplinary knowledge must never be assumed), and within outputs, e.g. developing and communicating appropriate definitions for the specific project that may question disciplinary norms. Where meetings can be held in person, rotating venues, akin to home/away football matches, can help to equalise opportunities across the team. Where reading groups/face-to-face meetings are not possible, other forms of regular communication are essential. A newsletter can be used to communicate appropriate news and views to the mixed audience, with space for a glossary of specialist or potentially misunderstood terms. To maintain the flow of information when team members are separated for significant periods, e.g. during fieldwork, a template and schedule for communication can be developed to report progress, challenges, impressions, learnings and next steps within and across disciplines to office-based collaborators.
Maintaining disciplinary rigour while being open to new knowledge
Perceptions of rigour vary with discipline, for example quantitative approaches are often seen as more rigorous than qualitative ones. It can be challenging to articulate what constitutes confidence in your discipline to other disciplines; and it is often a struggle to grasp ideas and what knowledge informs thinking in other disciplines based on literature alone. For instance, conservation values may be articulated as principles that express underlying scientific assumptions (Pooley et al. 2014), rather than explicitly framed as human values. Having your disciplinary principles (values) challenged may be uncomfortable but it can be an essential step to better joint understanding. Developing an understanding of data collection requirements for each discipline early in a project is also essential, so that sufficient time and resources are allocated to this key stage and adequate ethical and safety provisions are put in place.
Developing a ‘road map’ of potential publications that identifies key audiences and lead authors for all contributing disciplines can provide a focus for discussions on outputs. It can also help to ensure clarity over expectations and equitable representation in outputs across career stages and disciplines (depending on disciplinary norms, not necessarily numerical equivalence). In large, diverse groups, creating clarity over who is responsible for which workstreams and outputs is vital – tasks must have explicit rather than assumed allocations. And throughout the process of drawing together results and producing outputs, it is important as a group to pause and reflect on the process and to keep asking which data answer project research questions, which offer supporting evidence and which provide additional perspectives that lie beyond current project boundaries. The answers can then be used to inform how the quantitative and qualitative data could be combined, without cherry-picking, to address agreed themes and questions, and to generate outputs.
Our main goal is to summarise and provide potential solutions to some of the key challenges one might face when working in an interdisciplinary team. We hope that through highlighting common issues, more teams will be able to pre-empt and mitigate them, and thus improve the overall success of their projects and ultimately, to tackle real-world challenges. To encourage more financial and institutional support for interdisciplinary projects and the real-world problems that they address, we also encourage individual members/teams to provide feedback to funders and institutions on the unique requirements identified during an interdisciplinary project, to stimulate wider learning and support.
References and resources
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ESRC Research Evaluation Committee (2005) Evaluation of the ESRC/NERC Interdisciplinary Research Studentship Scheme. Economic and Social Research Council. https://esrc.ukri.org/files/research/research-and-impact-evaluation/esrc-nerc-interdisciplinary-research-studentship-scheme/
Gaston KJ, Aimé E, Chan KMA, Fish R, Hails RS and Maller C (2019) People and Nature—A journal of relational thinking. People and Nature 1: 4-5.
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Marzano M, Carss DN and Bell S (2006) Working to Make Interdisciplinarity Work: Investing in Communication and Interpersonal Relationships. Journal of Agricultural Economics 57: 185-197.
Miller TR, Baird TD, Littlefield CM, Kofinas G, Chapin III F and Redman CL (2008) Epistemological pluralism: reorganizing interdisciplinary research. Ecology and Society 13(2): 46. [online] URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol13/iss2/art46/
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Pooley SP, Mendelsohn JA and Milner-Gulland EJ (2014) Hunting Down the Chimera of Multiple Disciplinarity in Conservation Science. Conservation Biology 28: 22-32.
Reed M (2017) How to write a fundable proposal for the Global Challenges Research Fund. Fast Track Impact; 2nd February 2017. https://www.fasttrackimpact.com/single-post/2017/02/02/How-to-write-a-fundable-proposal-for-the-Global-Challenges-Research-Fund
Reed M (2017) Building high-performance interdisciplinary teams: moving beyond the Tinder approach. Fast Track Impact post. https://www.fasttrackimpact.com/issue-2-productivity-tips
Rylance R (2015) Grant giving: Global funders to focus on interdisciplinarity. Nature 525(7569): 525313a.
The slides shown at the workshop are available in blogposts on the Conservation Ecology SIG (besconservationsig.wordpress.com) and Tropical Wetland Consortium (tropicalwetlands.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk) websites.
We would like to thank Dr Kath Allen for her help in the development and running of the workshop, and all workshop participants and invited contributors for their valuable input.