Today I am badly stuck with my research. It is a real annoying feeling and of course, it being Sunday, there is no one around to have a good discussion with. I could try my children, and maybe if I can explain the problem to them I might find the solution.
I often have this, if I actually try to explain the problem to someone who is not totally familiar with it, I often find the solution while I am talking. This brings me to the topic of this blog post. I had promised earlier that I would talk more about multidisciplinary research, particularly since my colleague Michael Harris is also steering that way. The point above I just made is probably one of the main reasons why working in multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary teams is good. Rather than talking to your disciplinary friends, you have to explain your research in a much broader context and this throws up all kinds of new questions, but often also provides lots of answers.
Having said that, why am I not more involved in multidisciplinary research? I think this is an issue many of us are struggling with. In fact we all would like to be involved, but it never seems to work that way, and often, if you do get involved in a multidisciplinary project, the project never works out the way you wanted.
This means there are two major barriers towards multidisciplinary work. The first is: how to get involved into a large project with many colleagues from different disciplines, the second (and I think more manageable one) is: How do we make sure we all get something really good out of the project.
On the second one, my colleague Michael pointed out that the key requirement there is that the project is multidisciplinary and not interdisciplinary. What he meant is that the project includes enough challenging questions for each discipline to answer rather than being a lowest common denominator of the disciplinary questions. That seems obvious, but does not always work. As Michael pointed out, there are many projects where he is asked to be the “token economist” to do some cost benefit analysis after all the interesting science stuff is done. I can imagine a similar situation for myself as hydrologist. Providing some simple hydrological analysis or input for some higher level economics analysis is also not very attractive.
This is of course a matter of negotiation between the different partners in the project and the willingness to agree on a topic that challenges all academics involved. I think this would be true for all multidisciplinary science projects, so I can’t see why this would be a problem to extend this to including economics or social sciences or arts.
The first issue (and that is why I put it first and discuss it last) is the really big one. How do we build a multidisciplinary team where we all believe that all are going to put in the same effort and all are going to contribute in a similar way? Particularly, how can we achieve this in the current competitive funding arrangements? I have been involved in one of the cooperative research centres. Clearly these have been established to achieve multidisciplinary research, supported by substantial funding. But even in these situations, true multidisciplinary work is difficult to achieve. Why is this?
I think that the key issue is due to the nature of cooperation. Cooperation is based on trust and trust is something that builds. If you feel you can trust another person (this is not only meant financially, but also in terms of effort and quality of work) than it is easier to develop a project together and it is easier to create a multidisciplinary project in which all involved have challenging question.
Regrettably, in a competitive environment trust is difficult to build and as a result it tends to work on personality first. So we academics, like all other professions, we network; we network at conferences; we network at workshops; we network by visiting other Universities and countries and giving seminars (see my activities in Mexico). This means that you can get to know a few people, understand the nature and quality of their work and the level to which you would be able to work with each other. When you meet some likeable and similar minded people you start talking about projects. Networking takes time, often costs money, and takes personal effort. A good national or international multidisciplinary project doesn’t get of the ground unless the main people involved have known each other for some time. You can read this directly in almost every large grant proposal: “Academic X has been working for several years with the proponent and they jointly supervise student Y”, or something like that.
How does this bring me back to the multidisciplinary work between economists and science? Well, since all this takes effort, and particular in the case of multiple disciplines, I think it is all a matter of effort. Even for myself it is much easier to start up a project with a fellow hydrologist, whom I have met at several conferences and workshops than with the economist across the road. I first have to understand the nature of the possible economics problem that might be interesting, I need to match this with my own hydrological problem and I need to understand the nature of the economists work. Different disciplines have even different ways of writing papers and output. This is nothing against economists; I would have the same trouble working with a biomedical researcher or a historian. And there is a further catch, if you don’t intend to do the actual research yourself, but intend to hire someone to do most of the work (Such as a research associate or a PhD student) you also need a multi disciplinary person and you need to constantly restrain yourself not to drag the project into your own little pet area.
In a competitive environment, where there is significant pressure on academics to produce output rapidly, all of us take short cuts. That is not because we don’t want to work with anyone else, it just happens to be the easiest way to work. Michael and I have discussed ideas several times and we even supervise a PhD student together. But developing a real multi-disciplinary project has not yet happened.
I better have a chat with my children about this project….