The realities of interdisciplinary research

Published in Chemistry
The realities of interdisciplinary research

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We recently published an article in Nature Chemistry reviewing the research on academic lab safety. We were inspired partially because of our mutual interest in the subject, approaching it as a synthetic organic chemist who is also Departmental Safety Chair (Trant), and a clinical psychologist interested in why people make (sometimes poor) decisions (Ménard). Maybe we were inspired also because we felt our marriage was going a bit too well, and we wanted to test our union by writing an article together. The paper speaks for itself, and the general findings are that academic chemistry continues to experience significant challenges when it comes to implementing a safety culture. But we don’t want to talk about that in this forum.

Instead, let’s talk about something far bigger, the realities of truly interdisciplinary research. Collaborations that require you not just to walk down the hall from your office or to another floor but to another building altogether. Or maybe to a section of campus that you have never visited before. Collaborations that require you to read completely different journal articles that you find through completely different academic search engines and write grants that you submit to previously-unknown funding organizations.

Why don’t scientists typically engage in such collaborations?

One reason is that, after a while, it becomes increasingly difficult to meet academics outside of your circle. Between writing grants, writing papers, supervising students, attending meetings and sitting on committees, there isn’t much time to get to know people outside your department, let alone your faculty. There are also few naturally-occurring campus events where the natural scientists, social scientists and humanities professors meet up and discuss their projects. We are not going to pretend that we have an easy answer to this question. We are big fans of cross-disciplinary outside-of-work socialization (especially the kind that involves wine).

Another reason for the lack of cross-faculty collaborations could be a lack of respect for the value and utility of other disciplines. The more time we spend in a field, the more we become convinced that ours is the (only) right way to go about things. Ours is the only evidence that truly counts and will change the world. Our research methodologies are the only ones that are sound and replicable. But, at the end of the day, natural science is only one kind of science, one perspective and one lens through which to view the world. We can produce a Standard Operating Procedures for every chemical operation possible but if we can’t find out why students don’t read them, we will be no further ahead in creating policies that keep people safe. We need to set aside our preconceptions, set aside our biases and consider other ways of knowing.

But another reason is that truly interdisciplinary collaborations are anxiety-provoking. Other disciplines speak a different language to us, sometimes almost literally. They have different standards, and different ways of going about the work. Their articles involve too many words and not enough pictures. They do citations completely wrong, GOD, WHY WOULD ANYONE DO IT LIKE THAT? And academics, more than other groups perhaps, suffer from fragile egos. After nine, ten, eleven or more years of university, we don’t like to start at the beginning again. We don’t want to be novices, committing foolish blunders and asking dumb questions. But if we are to tap into the knowledge and skills that other academics possess, we need to make room for that anxiety. And we need to be kind to anyone who is willing to step outside their comfort zone and learn something new. After all, listening and discussing our work with them and seeing our research questions from new angles is how the rest of us get truly innovative ideas.


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