Interdisciplinary Science: A Coming of Age?

Large global challenges, such as climate change, require a comprehensive approach, part of which should be interdisciplinary research.

Interdisciplinary Science: A Coming of Age?

Interdisciplinarity is a word à la mode, as shown by the contributions in Nature's special issue on the topic (September 2015). However, the collection of articles and the statistics they present confirm that interdisciplinary science is still not mainstream: it is still rarely supported by funders of scientific research despite the increasing number of calls for interdisciplinary projects, it is still rarely taught in higher education curricula, and it is still not recognized by many academic institutions. Indeed interdisciplinary research is considered by many to be contradictory to the basic principles of the production of scientific knowledge.

Despite these challenges, the volume of interdisciplinary research has increased in recent decades, especially since 2000. In addition, the diversity and scope of collaborations between disciplines has increased. However, the number of collaborations between "near neighbor disciplines"—for example between researchers in social sciences—exceeds by far the number of collaborations between "distant disciplines," such as biophysical sciences and social sciences. Examples abound. For instance, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) includes over 1,000 biophysical scientists but only a small number of researchers from the humanities and social sciences. The cultural, ethical, psychological, and spiritual dimensions of climate change should be part of a much-needed humane conceptual framework that could improve our understanding of that extremely complex subject and how societies can tackle it.

The biophysical sciences are committed to improving our understanding of the geophysical and biochemical dimensions of climate change at global, regional, and local levels; we must also understand the individual, group, and societal attitudes, perceptions, motivations, reasoning, and values concerning climate change at each of these levels before considering which behavioral, financial, political, and technological tools to implement in specific situations.

Global climate change is not just a complex ecological challenge but indeed a societal one that concerns sustaining human life and guaranteeing health in diverse climatic, cultural, geographical, and political contexts. Tackling climate change will require a fundamental rethinking of the role and responsibility of human agency in the state of the planet.

Interdisciplinary contributions to climate change (and other components of global change) extend beyond common research questions about the occurrence and magnitude of change to address other equally important questions, such as how change is experienced by different groups or populations, why some countries have failed to acknowledge climate change in national policy agendas, and how adaptation and mitigation could become more effective.

There is no prescribed research protocol for interdisciplinary research into complex questions. Such research is more than simply effective teamwork, and integration cannot be taken for granted. According to Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980), who had a doctorate in biology, there are at least three modes of interdisciplinary collaboration. The first results from the willingness of researchers from two or more disciplines to collaborate and exchange ideas and information. The second is the transfer of concepts from one discipline, sub-discipline, or field to another for reuse in a different line of inquiry; a recent example of this is the transfer of the concept of resilience from physics to the biological, ecological, and social sciences. The third mode is the development of new concepts, such as planetary health, as described by Whitmee et al. in The Lancet (2015).

The either/or dichotomy of the current debate on disciplinary versus interdisciplinary research discussed in the special issue of Nature needs to be surpassed. It's time to admit that disciplinary and interdisciplinary research can and should coexist, because the co-benefits of interdisciplinary research for individuals, research groups, and research institutions in the public and private sectors can lead to added value for society.

Academy Member Roderick J. Lawrence is a Visiting Professor at the United Nations University's International Institute for Global Health, and holds several roles at the University of Geneva, including Emeritus Professor at the Geneva School of Social Sciences and Director of the Global Environmental Policy Program. He is also an Adjunct Professor at the National University of Malaysia.