Generating knowledge is one of the most exciting aspects of being human. The inventiveness required to apply this knowledge to solve practical problems is perhaps our most distinctive attribute.
But right now we have before us some hairy challenges – whether that be figuring our how to save our coral reefs from warmer water, landing a human on Mars, eliminating the gap in life expectancy between the “haves” and “have-nots” or delivering reliable carbon-free energy.
It’s commonly said that an interdisciplinary approach is vital if we are to tackle such real world challenges. But what does this really mean?
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Listen and read with care and you’ll start to notice that the words crossdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary are used interchangeably. These words describe distinctly different ways of harnessing the power of disciplinary expertise to chart a course into the unknown.
In navigation, the tools and methods matter – choose differently and you’ll end up in a different spot. How we go about creating knowledge and solving problems really matters – it changes not only what questions can be asked and answered but fundamentally shapes what’s possible.
What is a discipline?
For centuries we have organised research within disciplines, and this has delivered extraordinary depths of knowledge.
But what is a discipline? It’s a shared language, an environment in which there’s no need to explain the motivation for one’s work, and in which people have a shared sense of what’s valuable.
For example, my background discipline is optical physics. I know what it’s like to be able to skip down the corridor and say,
“I’ve figured out how we can get broadband flat dispersion - we just need to tailor the radial profile!”
…and have people instantly not just know what I mean, but be able to add their own ideas and drive the work forward.
In long-established disciplines it’s often necessary to focus in a narrow area to be able to extend the limits of knowledge within the time-frame of a PhD. And while it’s rarely obvious at the time what benefits will flow from digging a little deeper, our way of life has been transformed over and over as result.
Disciplines focus talent and so can be amazingly efficient ways of generating knowledge. But they can also be extraordinarily difficult to penetrate from the outside without understanding that discipline’s particular language and shared values.
The current emphasis on real-world impact has sharpened awareness on the need to translate knowledge into outcomes. It has also brought attention to the critical role partnerships with industry and other end-users of research play in this process.
Creating impact across disciplines
Try to solve a problem with the tools of a single discipline alone, and it’s as if you have a hammer - everything starts to look like a nail. It’s usually obvious when expertise from more than one discipline is needed.
Consider a panel of experts drawn from different fields to each apply the tools of their field to a problem that’s been externally framed. This has traditionally been how expertise from the social sciences is brought to bear on challenges in public health or the environment.
This is a crossdisciplinary approach, which can produce powerful outcomes provided that those who posed the question are positioned to make decisions based on the knowledge generated. But the research fields themselves are rarely influenced by this glancing encounter with different approaches to knowledge generation.
Multidisciplinary research involves the application of tools from one discipline to questions from other fields. An example is the application of crystallography, discovered by the Braggs, to unravel the structure of proteins. This requires concepts to transfer across domains, sometimes in real time but usually with a lag of years or decades.
Interdisciplinary research happens when researchers from different fields come together to pose a challenge that wouldn’t be possible in isolation. One example is the highly transparent optical fibres that underpin intercontinental telecommunication networks.
The knowledge creation that made this possible involved glass chemists, optical physicists and communication engineers coming together to articulate the possible, and develop the shared language required to make it a reality. When fields go on this journey together over decades, new fields are born.
In this example the question itself was clear – how can we harness the transparency of silica glass to create optical transmission systems that can transport large volumes of data over long distances?
But what about the questions we don’t know how to pose because without knowledge of another field we don’t know what’s possible? This line of reasoning leads us into the domain of transdisciplinary research.
Transdisciplinary research requires a willingness to craft new questions – whether because they were considered intractable or because without the inspiration from left field they simply didn’t arise. An example of this is applying photonics to IVF incubators - the idea that it could be possible to “listen” to how embryos experience their environment is unlikely to have arisen without bringing these fields together.
In my own field, physics, I discovered that when talking to people from other areas the simple question “what would you like to measure?” quickly led to uncharted territory.
Before long we were usually, together, posing fundamentally new questions and establishing teams to tackle them. This can be scary territory but it’s tremendously rewarding and creates space for creativity and the emergence of disruptive technologies.
Excellence, communication, co-location, funding
One of the best ways of getting out of a disciplinary silo is to take every opportunity to talk to others outside your field. Disciplinary excellence is the starting point to get to the table.
And while disciplinary collaborations can flourish over large distances because they share a language and values, it’s usually true that once you mix disciplines co-location becomes a real asset. Then of course there are the questions of how we fund and organise research concentrations to allow inter- and transdisciplinary research to flourish.
With the increased emphasis on impact, these questions are becoming ever more pressing. Organisations that get this right will thrive.