The Growing Enterprise of Interdisciplinary Research

Introduction (Via APS)

In the sciences, the era of interdisciplinary study has been delivering for some time. The past 50 years have seen researchers engaged in their own version of aisle reaching, extending a hand or a methodology or a graduate student across campus and, in some cases, across the globe, to advance some form of basic understanding. A recent National Academy of Sciences committee, charged with summarizing the state of scientific study across disciplines, reeled off an impressive list of achievements, from genome sequencing to neuroimaging to the Manhattan Project.

Psychologists have not been strangers to this trend. Rather, they have been in the vanguard, according to a paper published in Science (Wuchty, 2007). In the second half of the 20th century, the average size of a psychology research team increased 75 percent — the top rate of increase among social sciences.

Favorite Excerpts (Via APS)

In addition to long walks, the interdisciplinary success achieved by Medin and Atran owes much to the graduate students often brought to the field. After a day’s work, says Medin, there’s plenty of time each evening for students and study leaders alike to work out whatever methodological or terminological kinks linger from their different backgrounds.

This practice highlights perhaps the greatest challenge of working across disciplines—a challenge emphasized by Medin and Atran, separately, and echoed by every other scientist contacted for this article. That is, the potentially difficult position interdisciplinary work puts students in once they graduate and look for a job. In a theoretical but common scenario, students might spend years learning to conduct complex, interdisciplinary research in the field, then appear to have spread their expertise too thin for any particular department to hire. In this sense, the very interdisciplinary work that stands to help a developing science stands to harm the developing scientist.

Should a student of multiple disciplines—a “tweener,” as Elizabeth Phelps fashioned herself—catch on as an assistant professor, then the problem becomes publishing enough articles in a specialty journal to earn tenure. This intense, narrow focus can stifle progress in the areas of research an up-and-coming academic might consider most exciting.

Excerpts (Via APS)

New fields have already begun to emerge from these meetings of minds—neuroscience, political psychology, cognitive science, and evolutionary psychology, to name a handful. Such instances distinguish true interdisciplinary work from multi-disciplinary efforts, which, as APS Past President John Cacioppo pointed out in a previous Observer column, require “only that one share an established procedure with an investigator in another field.” Ideally, interdisciplinary collaborations lead to more than a parlor game of pass the procedure. They don’t just shift eyes onto the question at hand; they ask completely new questions. The goal here, it would seem, is not to reach across the aisle, but rather to eliminate it.

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18. September 2009 by Miguel Barbosa
Categories: Complex Systems, Curated Readings | Leave a comment

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