Various multiple-disciplinary terms and concepts (although most commonly "interdisciplinarity," which is used herein) are used to frame education, scholarship, research, and interactions within and outside academia. In principle, the premise of interdisciplinarity may appear to have many strengths; yet, the extent to which interdisciplinarity is embraced by the current generation of academics, the benefits and risks for doing so, and the barriers and facilitators to achieving interdisciplinarity, represent inherent challenges. Much has been written on the topic of interdisciplinarity, but to our knowledge there have been few attempts to consider and present diverse perspectives from scholars, artists, and scientists in a cohesive manner. As a team of 57 members from the Canadian College of New Scholars, Artists, and Scientists of the Royal Society of Canada (the College) who self-identify as being engaged or interested in interdisciplinarity, we provide diverse intellectual, cultural, and social perspectives. The goal of this paper is to share our collective wisdom on this topic with the broader community and to stimulate discourse and debate on the merits and challenges associated with interdisciplinarity. Perhaps the clearest message emerging from this exercise is that working across established boundaries of scholarly communities is rewarding, necessary, and is more likely to result in impact. However, there are barriers that limit the ease with which this can occur (e.g., lack of institutional structures and funding to facilitate cross-disciplinary exploration). Occasionally, there can be significant risk associated with doing interdisciplinary work (e.g., lack of adequate measurement or recognition of work by disciplinary peers). Solving many of the world's complex and pressing problems (e.g., climate change, sustainable agriculture, the burden of chronic disease, and aging populations) demands thinking and working across long-standing, but in some ways restrictive, academic boundaries. Academic institutions and key support structures, especially funding bodies, will play an important role in helping to realize what is readily apparent to all who contributed to this paper-that interdisciplinarity is essential for solving complex problems; it is the new norm. Failure to empower and encourage those doing this research will serve as a great impediment to training, knowledge, and addressing societal issues.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
All co-authors are members of the College except for VMN who assisted during the last phases of her PhD studies and her subsequent PDF and undertook all the coding and thematizing activities. VMN was supported by Carleton University, NSERC, and the Mitacs Canadian Science Policy fellowship. The rest of the authors thank the Royal Society of Canada, their home institutions, and the many funding agencies (especially the Tri-Council) who support their scholarly activity. We are particularly indebted to Russell MacDonald for his assistance in facilitating activities of the College of New Scholars, Artists, and Scientists of the Royal Society of Canada. Brooke Etherington and Connor Reid assisted with collating contributions and formatting the paper. We are grateful to two external referees as well as the Editor of FACETS (Jules Blais) for providing thoughtful input on this manuscript. No ethics approval was required being that all individuals who contributed ideas were coauthors on the paper.
We, as humans, love to create boundaries—countries, genders, race, religion, and political perspectives, etc. We do the same in the academy and often build academic silos. Such academic silos are not explicitly designed for interdisciplinary research, e.g., a strong proposal can be kicked around from funding agency to funding agency simply because it does not fit the template of any single one. For example, a recent federal funding review in Canada acknowledged that there were instances in which research fell through the cracks in that it was not appropriate for the rather siloed agencies (see page 123 of sciencereview.ca/eic/site/059.nsf/vwapj/ScienceReview_April2017-rv.pdf/$file/ ScienceReview_April2017-rv.pdf). We acknowledge that efforts are underway to create more interdisciplinary funding opportunities (e.g., recent New Frontiers in Research Fund; sshrc-crsh.gc.ca/ funding-financement/nfrf-fnfr/index-eng.aspx), which should be lauded but more such opportunities are needed. Such interdisciplinary peer-review systems have existed in the United States for some time through the National Science Foundation flagship grant program currently called the Dynamics of Integrated Socio-Environmental Systems (CNH2; see nsf.gov/pubs/2019/nsf19528/nsf19528.htm), which is focused on addressing complex, interdisciplinary problems using individuals from the natural and social sciences to assess grants. However, that is not the norm. Peer-review committees may lack the expertise to competently assess the quality and value of interdisciplinary projects. Such a model creates financial and administrative complexities when engaging in interdisciplinarity. For example, interdisciplinary teams are challenging to assemble simply because students or other scholars are scattered across various units, which creates administrative complexities and logistical challenges. This model also creates a barrier to access other scholars to engage with interdisciplinary work. Another challenge is initial access to other scholars in other disciplines and finding people with analogous interests with whom to engage. For example, a couple of authors mentioned:
There are also the procedural drawbacks of engaging in interdisciplinarity. Navigating funding sources becomes difficult (which source to go for when engaging in many disciplines?) and securing funds becomes more challenging and potentially riskier. Given the Canadian context, this was deemed to be particularly important for the Tri-Agency grants (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), and CIHR). The venues for publication of interdisciplinary content are often not as well recognized as disciplinary domains, which can be a major drawback. Communicating interdisciplinary research becomes challenging because of the wide readership, which can lead to simplification of the research and loss of information and depth. Often, being a bridge between academic units can also come with additional administrative burdens. Traditionally, a common sentiment toward funding agencies has been, “There are no funding mechanisms that encourage these collaborations.” However, the scientific landscape is changing, and funding agencies and institutions are realizing they must also adapt and foster interdisciplinary work (see section 7.3).
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