One of the most exciting things about being a population health researcher is the opportunity to collaborate across disciplinary boundaries to address health problems requiring multiple perspectives and approaches. For example, an article in Nature in 2015 highlighted interdisciplinary trends in publication and showed their increasing relevance in health research as well as the potential for the author’s growth and influence when publishing outside of their own discipline.
While the call for interdisciplinarity is welcome, one of the biggest challenges is determining how to effectively collaborate across overlapping but frequently acrimonious or incongruous fields. And while some research institutes and universities have reorganized around priority areas, most of us spend our time researching and writing within fairly traditional boundaries with conventional and discipline-based assessment processes. So the question is, how do we move beyond simply calling our research interdisciplinary to actually doing interdisciplinary research ?
Here are some suggestions I’ve found helpful.
Learn to speak across disciplines. Communication is one of the biggest challenges to interdisciplinary research. Even within my Health Policy and Management department, where everyone has similar health-research goals, unique definitions and jargon persist due to discipline-specific training (e.g., economics, sociology, health policy). We frequently have different preferences in methodological approaches and struggle with terminology. This becomes even more pronounced when working with individuals from the broader health care sector, where I have discovered that seemingly basic terms such as population health mean different things to researchers, policy makers, health insurers, or health information specialists. Familiarity with the language and jargon of a particular field comes from frequent communication and contact. Attendance at research seminars and participation in working groups that span these divides are ways to enhance communication, familiarity, and trust.
Establish and maintain relationships early and often. Another way to overcome the barrier of communication is through established trust. I find this particularly hard as a social scientist working within a school of medicine, where there are established hierarchies of the disciplines. Social scientists are frequently brought onto teams as an afterthought, for program implementation or to meet grant criteria asking for interdisciplinary teams. Part of this problem can be traced to a lack of awareness of respective disciplines’ technical capabilities. For example, while the skills of biostatisticians are often established and well-known, I frequently have to define what a demographer is, and I continue to learn about and appreciate the skills of local policy makers. Cross-department, community, or research-themed meet-and-greets or presentations are one way to advertise skills as well as potential collaborative and data opportunities. Trust relies on full integration into teams and is contingent on time investment and the ability to promote our work and skills.
Encourage early-career investigators. It is important to incentivize early-stage interdisciplinary research sooner rather than later. Yet besides a few successful training programs, there are strong disincentives to do so in university settings. The structural and logistical challenges are challenging to overcome and add risk to the already stressful process of tenure and promotion. Negotiating job expectations with department chairs and directors is particularly important for junior faculty members and those in joint-positions across departments or research institutes. Current barriers to interdisciplinary research include a number of value judgements (varying by discipline, position, and department) that have implications for tenure or promotion decisions. These include types of research (e.g., applied vs. basic science); types of collaboration (e.g., university vs. community groups); appropriate dissemination outlets; authorship expectations (e.g., number of collaborators; authorship order); and grant funding streams (e.g., foundations vs. federal). Transparency and clear job expectations regarding these barriers are required to achieve success. In addition, a strong network of like-minded researchers in organizations such as IAPHS can make change by communicating about and encouraging interdisciplinary work through mentorship and as external promotion letter writers.
Encouraging collaborations. There are structural opportunities to overcome some of the barriers I’ve listed. For one, graduate training offers a unique opportunity to build interdisciplinary research. I have found that serving as a mentor or committee member can encourage graduate students and postdocs to practice interdisciplinary research, appreciate various skill sets, and to integrate into broader research and policy communities. Moreover, respect and trust are often built among mentors over the course of interdisciplinary mentoring and training.
Also, universities need to take more ownership for encouraging collaborations. While universities increasingly promote specific initiatives that emphasize the importance of interdisciplinary research and collaboration, they don’t often dedicate the necessary resources. Small steps such as supporting cross-discipline talks or workshops through innovative grant programs that incorporate both the research and local community can go a long way in influencing a university culture. Serious efforts to integrate researchers often require both physical space and dedicated support for the research time required to establish trust and a shared vocabulary. Universities need to recognize that interdisciplinary research is crucial for science and deserves the substantial investment required.
As IAPHS members are best placed to understand, the biggest health problems today require approaches that draw on methods, theories, and resources from multiple areas of social, behavioral, policy, and medical inquiry. If we are to make strides, we need to consistently work to reduce structural barriers to interdisciplinarity, incentivize and reward collaboration, and present opportunities that maintain communication and build the trust necessary to avoid the temptation to work in our traditional silos.