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Interdisciplinary science programs are important but often get less support

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Katie Mast | Aug 26, 2013 04:00 AM

As spring rolled into campus each year, students at my northern Indiana college would soak up the warmth on blankets outside, surrounded by textbooks and notes. The books on my blanket covered subjects from public policy and economics to chemistry and land management; I never could choose between biology and anthropology. Luckily for me, a relatively new environmental studies major had sprung up, allowing me to count tree rings and topographic lines, study laws of chemistry and of the federal government, and learn about both plant and human communities. The required courses bounced me between the sciences and the humanities, and though perhaps at the expense of depth, I gained a unique breadth of education. I graduated with the language and analytical skills to understand the methodology described in some science journals and the aptitude for exploring the nuances of legal proceedings.

Interdisciplinary training has suited me personally, and is an approach that is gaining traction in all levels of academia. However, researchers wanting to engage deeply across traditional academic boundaries face a lot of barriers. A new study published in BioScience analyzes responses from 323 social and natural scientists, largely from academic settings, to show that many interdisciplinary programs face unique communication challenges across departments and trouble with funding. Interdisciplinary researchers also report difficulty with career advancement like securing tenure-track positions.

While collaboration in academia isn’t a brand-new idea, it is difficult for programs to develop truly interdisciplinary projects that actually create a new set of terminology and research methods. One example of a deeply interdisciplinary program is the Forest Ecology and Society Department in Oregon State University’s Forestry College. Five years ago, the department brought economists and sociologists together with biologists and ecologists, seeking to “work at the intersection,” says Paul Doescher, department head. Doescher says that one of the biggest challenges to true integration is respect. “People can get so insular in their particular areas that they think their way is the best way to approach the problems.” Many responses recorded in the BioScience study reflect this point; understanding, and respecting, the language and research methods of other areas of study is a major barrier.

Oregon State University
Oregon State University from the air. OSU's Forest Ecology and Society Department is one example of a concerted effort to support interdisciplinary academic work.

Many researchers surveyed in the report also indicated that the dominant academic system rewards specialization and discourages interdisciplinary research. Many reported trouble with funding for interdisciplinary projects and trouble advancing their careers. Beyond institutional and professional deterrents, differences in language and terminology are some of the biggest challenges. “When you are trained in a specific discipline, you become very comfortable with terminology,” says Eric Roy, a coastal scientist from Louisiana State University and lead author on the study. Collaborating with people from other fields introduces new terms, research methods, and background. “All the sudden, you are talking about things that are confusing, words that you need to have defined for you. It’s a personal challenge.” To become truly interdisciplinary takes time and a lot of work. But the results, says Roy, are worth it. “It does open you up to be a more flexible thinker. You’ve gone into the woods and had to find your way out.”

While the study focused primarily on academic collaboration, people in the environmental field beyond the ivory towers are also calling for more interdisciplinary collaboration. John Horning, executive director at WildEarth Guardians, a non-profit that advocates for wildlife and wild places in the West, sees the need for broader, more holistic thinking in many aspects of society and public policy. “It’s a tremendous cultural and societal problem to get people who are used to thinking about components of parts to think about what keeps systems healthy,” he says. “Systems are what make species work – they don’t exist as component parts. (They) are inextricably linked.” In order to address broad, complex issues like climate change, health care, and a struggling economy, we need the ability, and willingness, to think beyond traditional boundaries for solutions.

"What we’re facing in the future," says Doescher, "are significantly important societal issues where we will have to make choices about how we manage our natural resources based upon such things as climate change and increasing demands of the public on the resources that we have.”

While individuals may recognize the need for broader collaboration, getting an agency or institution to change course can be a difficult task. Just as academia is steeped in a history of specialization, many federal agency employees are trained to think in that classical, departmental way, says Doescher. However, there is some support from individuals and offices to have a more holistic outlook: “When I talk to on-the-ground land managers, they say, ‘Yes! Exactly! That’s what we need!’” It may be a slow ship to turn, but Doescher says that he sees agencies “moving more and more in that direction.” For instance, managers at the nearby Forest Service headquarters have told Doescher they are no longer hiring traditional foresters, but instead are seeking natural resource specialists to “work across the spectrum of ideas.”

According to the responses recorded in Roy’s study, collaborative projects are worth the effort and time. “The benefits of successful interdisciplinary endeavors,” the report says in its conclusion, are “essential for gaining traction on complex environmental issues.” Doescher agrees. “If we can get people appreciating each other in terms of how they approach their disciplines, it goes a long way to ultimately come up with approaches that help solve some of these natural resource problems we’ll be facing in the future.”

Katie Mast is an Editorial Intern at High Country News. Oregon State University from the Air courtesy Saml123 via Flickr.

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