The importance of being (inter)disciplined
It's one thing to identify the elephant in the room but quite another to decide what to do with it, writes Dr Lydia Cole, this week's guest on The Green Edge.
Our guest writer this week is Dr. Lydia Cole. Lydia is a conservation ecologist with a focus on understanding the ecological functioning and dynamics of human interaction with peatland ecosystems. She is currently working as an Associate Lecturer in Geography and Sustainable Development at the University of St Andrews.
You can read more about her interdisciplinary pursuits and associated projects on the Tropical Wetlands Consortium website. She is also the Chair of the BES Conservation Ecology Special Interest Group. You can find her blog here.
I am regularly nagged by my HR department to complete the latest skills training. I now know how to lift heavy boxes without hurting my back, where to stack said boxes to avoid causing a fire hazard, and when I’m about to breach GDPR. These are important skills. I don’t want to be responsible for fuelling a fire, for example. But fires are relatively rare.
What is perhaps more commonplace than lifting boxes in my, and every profession, is working with others. Those ‘others’ are often from a different community, culture or country. If we’re lucky, our workplaces might have the funds and forward-thinking to send us on team-building days, where we have an opportunity to get to know each other, and to find ways of getting out of a locked room with just an obscure clue and no coffee machine.
I have never been formally trained in how to respectfully, and inclusively, work with others. Perhaps it is expected that we should all innately know how to do this. But I suspect we can all testify, from our own interactions or those of others, that this is often not the case.
I have also not been formally trained to seek diversity, of intellect and experience, when working towards solving a problem. I’ll illustrate this point with the ‘green economy’. This phrase can be interpreted in multiple ways. You might imagine the economy as being the fodder of economists. Add ‘green’ to that noun and you invite ecologists, environmental scientists, climate scientists, engineers, psychologists, sociologists, and a diversity of other experts1 to debate what this concept looks like in practice. Most economists will not know how an ecosystem can be sustained whilst resources are being extracted from it; most ecologists will not understand the intricacies of the nested markets that influence the exploitation of an ecosystem. Real-world problems require insights from diverse perspectives, in order to understand and solve them.
Interdisciplinarity is defined as an approach where two or more academic disciplines work together to answer a common question. Those disciplines may have quite different methods of generating and processing new knowledge (what we term epistemology), and of interpreting that knowledge within the discipline’s framing of the world (ontology). The integration of disciplinary approaches allows the triangulation of a ‘problem’ or research question, to synthesise an answer that is more likely to capture the diversity of challenges that need to be addressed. A common analogy used to explain the importance of interdisciplinary working, is that of solving the problem of the elephant in the room (Fig. 1). One person tasked with researching the identity of the elephant might conclude that it is a tree, if they only use their research methods and paradigms in their diagnosis; another might conclude it is a rope. Working together, however, the different interpretations of the subject can be discussed, debated, and synthesised into a result that is more than the sum of its parts. Thus, we conclude that there is an elephant in the room!
Fig. 1 Getting to grips with the elephant in the room. Credit: Bournemouth University Research Blog.
But working together is much easier to state on paper than to fulfil in practice. I speak from experience, having been involved in various projects where natural and social scientists have been brought together to explore environmental conservation challenges. Whilst the prevalence of “interdisciplinary” research projects seems to be increasing, in part due to the requirements of research funding calls, the amount of advice and training, and of truly integrated research outputs do not. A discussion about this with a colleague, Dr Althea Davies, turned into co-facilitating a workshop, and eventually the co-writing of a Guide to Better Science on interdisciplinary working, for the British Ecological Society’s publication series. It was primarily written as a reference for natural scientists embarking on interdisciplinary research with social scientists, but we hope, and think, there are useful tips and strategies in there for anyone working in diverse teams. We elaborate on our process and motivations for writing the guide here.
If I was to distil the guide into a few top tips, I’d squeeze the following into my elevator ride:
Choose your team wisely – not everyone is equipped with the prerequisite character traits for effective interdisciplinary working, such as patience and open-mindedness, but perhaps with formal training, we all will be!
Ensure you schedule more time for completion of the project – it takes longer to develop the research questions, to gather data across disciplines, to enable learning through trial and error, and to communicate effectively, and cutting corners will also cut into project success;
Create a safe space for all participants – everyone involved must feel welcome, feel valued as an integral part of the project, and both be heard and hear others, at all career stages and taking into account the diverse needs of individuals; and,
Communication is key – this point is fundamental; work together to find a shared language from the start, and ensure you develop a communication strategy that works for the different participants and components of the project, to nurture trust and progress.
Perhaps you have additional points to add that we’ve missed out in the guide? I’d love to hear from you if so. One way of working that we don’t cover in the guide, but which is fundamental to any project involving sustainable development, or the application of the green economy, is transdisciplinary working. These projects go beyond just identifying the elephant in the room; they require decisions being made about what to do with it.
Transdisciplinary working takes interdisciplinary academic collaborations and throws in non-academic partners – anyone from politicians to members of the public – with their further diverse ways of understanding and being in the world, their values, needs and wants, with the goal of seeking transformative outcomes to a common problem. Participation by all members from the start is central to the success of any transdisciplinary project. If you want to learn more about additional skills central to transdisciplinary working, take a look at this post I co-wrote with a colleague, Alexandre Chausson, after running a panel discussion on this theme.
Working with people, from different cultures, with different experiences and values, and aspirations, is unavoidable in our globalised world. It is also essential if we are to develop equitable solutions to how we continue to survive on this warming planet. And it is enriching. My manifesto then is to teach everyone, starting from childhood, the skills to work across disciplines and sectors, communities and cultures, to create an interdisciplinary global community of problem solvers.
Many thanks to Dr. Lydia Cole for contributing this article to The Green Edge.
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I’m defining an expert as someone whose experience in subject exceeds that of the average person.