OPINION: The value of interdisciplinary research

Mark Diesendorf
Thursday, 30 August, 2012
Mark Diesendorf and Crelis Rammelt

Academic research is often justified to governments and the general public on the basis that it contributes to the solution of major problems and helps create a better life for all. But most of the academic research at Australian universities is disciplinary based, while the biggest problems faced by human society fall into the broad categories of environmental destruction, resource depletion, poverty, war, disease, injustice, inequity and exploitation, none of which fits into a single academic discipline. These are inherently complex, ‘wicked’ problems that not only require inputs from several disciplines, but also require new forms of knowledge and research that have not been classified as disciplines.

With definitions similar to those used by the Fenner School of the Environment and Society at ANU, we define multidisciplinary research as research that draws upon two or more disciplines, without involving significant communication or understanding between the disciplinary experts involved. While it is true that contributions to understanding ‘wicked’ problems have been made by individual disciplinary exploration, discovery and invention, these problems can also be ignored or even inadvertently misrepresented and trivialised by the traditional disciplinary structure of research institutions. A metaphor for the value of a multidisciplinary approach is the Indian tale of the blind people each holding on to a different part of an elephant and individually unable to see the whole animal. The generally slow and chaotic progress in understanding the above major problems can be attributed in part to the limitations of disciplinary and multidisciplinary research.

Interdisciplinary research can be more effective, because it involves substantial interactions between the disciplinary and any interdisciplinary researchers involved, often to the extent that the members of the interdisciplinary team try to understand the strengths and limitations of the disciplinary contributions from all their fellow team members. The focus is on the problem and its solutions, instead of the individual disciplinary perspectives and solutions. In other words, the whole is greater than the sum of his parts.

We argue that interdisciplinary research and teaching must be stimulated at universities. They do not compete with disciplinary research and teaching. They complement and add value to disciplinary work, and vice versa. The field of Environmental Studies, for example, draws upon many disciplines from the physical and biological sciences, engineering, law and social sciences including economics, but it goes beyond a multidisciplinary approach. Without an interdisciplinary conceptual framework and without interdisciplinary researchers to work with disciplinary researchers to integrate the contributions from different disciplines to focus on solutions to the problems at hand, progress is likely to be slow. For this reason students studying in the Master of Environmental Management program of the Institute of Environmental Studies (IES) at UNSW must take a combination of interdisciplinary Core subjects taught by IES academics, disciplinary Fundamental Knowledge subjects taught by disciplinary experts, and environmentally related electives from all over the university.

Some fear that in pursuing interdisciplinary collaboration, we risk overlooking the need to nurture specialist research. In our view the situation is the opposite. Interdisciplinary researchers are disadvantaged in several ways. For instance, they find it very difficult to win certain types of research grants, such as ARC Discovery or DECRA, because if they propose an interdisciplinary problem, they are forced into a multidisciplinary assessment in which they must demonstrate outstanding abilities in each discipline involved in the project, which is unrealistic.

Furthermore, an interdisciplinary paper on (say) integrating high penetrations of renewable energy into the electricity grid, may have to address scientific, technological, economic, institutional and policy aspects in an integrated manner. Inevitably, this means that interdisciplinary researchers, who conscientiously try to address the whole problem, will take longer to produce a paper and so are likely to have lower publication rates than highly specialised disciplinary researchers who can churn out paper after paper on the fine details of a very narrow field.

Another disadvantage is that many interdisciplinary journals were classified as B, despite having high impact factors and high quality papers, while many highly specialised disciplinary journals with few readers were classified as A. This raises questions about how these classifications were originally obtained. Were/are the supporters of the specialised A journals simply better organised in lobbying for As? Clearly the Australian Research Council was worried about the validity of the journal classification system and its potential for misuse, because it terminated the use of this system. Yet several Faculties at UNSW and other universities maintain this dubious system.

An unfounded fear held by some disciplinary researchers is that there is a tension or contradiction between individual leadership and individual excellence on one hand and interdisciplinary research on the other hand. This notion is not necessarily soundly based. Some Nobel Prizes are awarded for disciplinary research (eg, most awarded in the disciplines of physics, chemistry, and physiology or medicine). However, it could be argued that even some of the winners in these categories actually did interdisciplinary or at least multidisciplinary research: for example, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, William Henry Bragg and Eduard Buchner. In addition, Nobel Peace prizes were awarded to Muhammad Yunus, Joseph Rotblat, Andrei Sakharov and Linus Pauling, all interdisciplinary researchers as well as campaigners for a better world. Other outstanding interdisciplinary individuals, who were all awarded the Right Livelihood Award, include Johan Galtung, Manfred Max Neef and Herman Daly.

One way putting down interdisciplinary research is to claim that outstanding interdisciplinary researchers are actually disciplinary researchers. There is an element of truth in this, although it’s misleading. After all, almost all academics have a disciplinary background, but this need not stop them from becoming interdisciplinary researchers. For instance, Galtung was originally a mathematician, then a sociologist, who founded and developed the interdisciplinary field of peace research. Similarly Max-Neef was originally an economist, but his human-scale development model goes far beyond conventional economics in its comprehension of poverty and injustice. Daly was a student of Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, a physicist turned economist who merged thermodynamics with economics, which offers invaluable insights into current environmental problems. Daly became one of the founders of the interdisciplinary field of ecological economics, which, unlike environmental economics, is not a branch of neoclassical economics.

Occasionally a problem demands that researchers go beyond the bounds of validity of existing academic disciplines and incorporate knowledge from new and emerging academic fields (eg futures studies), community members with local knowledge, and practitioners with practical experience. This is known as transdisciplinary research. Galtung, Max-Neef and Daly’s contributions are all interdisciplinary and possibly to some degree transdisciplinary.

To conclude, interdisciplinary (and occasionally transdisciplinary) research complements disciplinary research and adds value by integrating disciplinary and other knowledge into forms that can address more comprehensively and effectively major environmental and social problems. Interdisciplinary work is more open to outside scrutiny, which lowers its value in the eyes of some disciplinary academics, but raises its value for dealing with real-world problems and communicating the issues and solutions to the public. It should be nurtured.

(Associate Professor Mark Diesendorf  and Dr Crelis Rammelt are with the UNSW Institute of Environmental Studies. They have written this article in their private capacities.)