A Streams of Thought contribution by Clare Stephens, Danlu Guo, Nevenka Bulovic, Fiona Tang, Anna Lintern and Pallavi Goswami.
As part of the MODSIM conference held in Sydney, December 2021, a group of around 30 Early Career Researchers (ECRs) gathered in-person and virtually for a workshop on interdisciplinary research. We heard from three inspiring speakers: Prof. Gabriele Bammer, Prof. Corey Bradshaw and Dr. Arunima Malik, followed by break-out group discussions about our own experiences guided by the speakers. This article summarizes our thoughts and lessons learned.
Challenges identified for interdisciplinary research
Most of the workshop participants had limited experience with interdisciplinary research, and they identified a number of barriers that have made it difficult for them to get involved. Many of these challenges were related to career metrics and funding policy in Australia and elsewhere. Interdisciplinary research may not align with the indicators we need for career progression, which tend to reward fast publication rather than encouraging research across broader disciplines and diverse teams requiring substantially more time to develop. Funding for interdisciplinary research can be difficult to obtain in countries where impact is measured with respect to a particular field of research (as is the case in Australia). Similarly, job applications tend to relate to a specific area of expertise and the participants felt that there was less demand for interdisciplinary scientists. Time pressure is also a key issue, which makes it difficult for ECRs to learn about topics outside their main areas of focus, particularly as employment is often tied to funded projects with little flexibility in the role.
Another barrier identified by the participants was a lack of networks and support during the early stages of their research careers. Networking can be time-consuming and doesn’t always lead to immediate returns. The COVID-19 pandemic has created further difficulties for young scientists wanting to broaden their reach. Additionally, communication barriers arising from different terminologies in different disciplines can present significant challenges for interdisciplinary teams. Some participants reported experiencing issues with ‘gatekeeping’ – more senior scientists (especially field experts) who are unwilling to support ECRs taking on broad research projects outside of their own discipline. These ‘human’ barriers to interdisciplinary research may be more subtle than the identified structural issues in academia, but they can be just as problematic for young scientists.
Opportunities to engage more effectively across disciplines
The three speakers acted as mentors for the break-out discussions, and they shared some excellent tips on carrying out interdisciplinary projects more effectively. To get started in interdisciplinary science, they suggested being open-minded, meeting a wide range of people and showing interest in their work. A good starting point is to rethink the assumptions we make in our own fields and consider whether knowledge from other areas would help us refine those assumptions. This viewpoint can help us work out whether interdisciplinary work is really needed to address the problem at hand. The mentors also noted that it is often alright to dive into interdisciplinary research without necessarily having a deep understanding of every aspect of the project – it’s fine to learn as you go.
Once an interdisciplinary project is underway, there are different ways to approach the challenges that come with communicating across different fields. One approach is to work out any differences upfront through extensive discussions, while an alternative is to ‘wait for the clash’ and deal with it as it arises. In general, the mentors recommended a balance between the two, since it is rarely possible to iron out all differences in advance. Having a team member who is good at resolving conflict can be helpful, and it is important to set expectations early and transparently. A research plan is important, but so is a reasonable level of flexibility.
How could interdisciplinary research move hydrology forward?
Assuming we can get it right, what benefits do we see for hydrology from interdisciplinary research? Our group of ECRs felt that new knowledge from other fields leveraging different areas of expertise could have a significant impact. For example, it could help us think more broadly and make our work visible to a wider range of people (such as those from the social sciences and energy sectors), driving an increase in on-the-ground impact. We may come up with better solutions for stakeholders by developing a more comprehensive understanding of the problem and a greater range of potential solutions. Finally, interdisciplinarity could help us gain better insight into how research can support water policy and practice, which is the shared goal of all hydrologists!
Resources for those who are interested in pursuing interdisciplinary research
The following resources were recommended by the speakers:
We would like to thank our three wonderful speakers – please check out their interdisciplinary work to get inspired!
Professor Gabriele Bammer, National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, Research School of Population Health, Australian National University.
Prof. Bammer’s research is in developing the new discipline of Integration and Implementation Sciences (i2S) to build research capability for tackling complex real-world problems through synthesis of disciplinary and stakeholder knowledge, understanding and managing diverse unknowns and providing integrated research support for policy and practice change.
Professor Corey Bradshaw, College of Science and Engineering, Flinders University.
Prof. Bradshaw’s research is global-change ecology, investigating how human endeavour and climate fluctuations have altered past, present and future ecosystems. Prof. Bradshaw’s work has informed environmental policy around the world.
Dr. Arunima Malik, Integrated Sustainability Analysis, School of Physics and Sydney Business School, The University of Sydney.
Dr. Malik’s research focusses on the appraisal of social, economic, and environmental impacts using input-output analysis to quantify sustainability impacts at local, national and global scales. She has carried out a range of sustainability supply-chain assessments of health care, biofuel production, construction materials, global energy use, global nitrogen and greenhouse gas emissions, and tourism.
Fiona Tang (Swedish University of Agricultural Science, firstname.lastname@example.org), Clare Stephens (University of Western Sydney, email@example.com), Nevenka Bulovic (University of Queensland, firstname.lastname@example.org), Anna Lintern (Monash University, email@example.com), Danlu Guo (The University of Melbourne, firstname.lastname@example.org), Pallavi Goswami (Monash University, email@example.com)