Unintended Benefits of Interdisciplinary Efforts: Ideas from Kavli Frontiers of Science

11.27.2012 |

Just because you know what you are doing, doesn’t mean anyone else does. And that matters.

Editor’s Note: this is a guest post by Andrew Binder, an assistant professor of communication at NC State who specializes in science communication and how citizens perceive science issues. Binder attended the Kavli Frontiers of Science symposium earlier this month, and writes about some of the conclusions he drew from the event.

Institutions of higher education, private foundations and government agencies increasingly emphasize the importance of interdisciplinary research for finding solutions to important societal-level problems. Indeed, leading thinkers argue that developing renewable energy, maintaining reliably safe and abundant potable water, and mitigating threats to human health around the world depend on bringing researchers from varied backgrounds together to share their perspectives. But what are the best ways of promoting interdisciplinarity to bridge lofty ideals and practical outcomes?

One approach revamps our idea of what constitutes graduate education by developing Ph.D. programs that are based explicitly on interdisciplinary training. Today this seems increasingly common, with the National Science Foundation’s IGERT program being a prime example. But by definition, these educational efforts focus on students rather than providing outlets for faculty members to exchange ideas and make connections with scholars from other disciplines.

The dearth of opportunities can be an especially potent problem for junior faculty members, who may be so overwhelmed by their own new roles and responsibilities that they rarely venture outside of their home departments.

One effort aimed squarely at these young faculty members and researchers is the Kavli Frontiers of Science program, co-sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences and the Kavli Foundation, which aims to bring together young, forward-thinking scholars from nine different scholarly disciplines to share ideas in both formal and informal settings. Having had the honor of attending this year’s symposium, from Nov. 2-4, I’m eager to share three big ideas brought to my attention.

1. Researchers and scientists need more practice explaining the value of their research.

The tenor of discussions following research presentations at the Frontiers of Science symposium was sometimes surprising. In a room full of ambitious scientists, there were occasionally times when the value of research being presented was questioned and challenged. Hearing these challenges can be a very fruitful intellectual exercise, particularly if they point toward new ideas or unanswered (and unasked) questions. But a more subtle and striking phenomenon often occurs in these situations: a researcher is challenged on a very basic research assumption, and he or she cannot adequately respond to that challenge.

A simple aspect of human nature lay at the heart of this problem: insularity. When we spend too much time with like-minded colleagues and research assistants, we tend to lose sight of the bigger picture. And grasping the bigger picture has never been more important than in today’s financially strapped and (at times) culturally contentious scientific research atmosphere.

2. The only ways to practice explaining the value of our research are (a) to seize available opportunities or (b) to seek out new ones.

The crucial point here is motivation. As scholars and researchers we are responsible to our departments and our disciplines, each with its high-impact journals and professional associations. But researchers also find themselves at institutions where innovative research and new kinds of knowledge are produced every day—of which we often remain entirely unaware. Making connections across campus to appreciate what our colleagues are doing, and sharing the value of our own research, requires motivation.

One possible way to facilitate such exchanges would be for institutions to establish their own version of a Frontiers of Science program. The simple aim of this program would be socializing new junior faculty in the practice of explaining research to diverse campus audiences. Another possibility is to take our research to unusual places where people do not typically go to seek out information about science. At my home institution, NC State faculty have started doing so with an initiative called Pints of Science, where scientists give informal talks and drink beer with patrons of an Irish pub.

3. Explaining research requires a systematic understanding of science communication.

This point is part of a much broader topic, so I will use this space to drive home an important, overarching idea. Understanding how diverse audiences view our research and the types of reactions they might have should begin within our own institutions. In countless examples of scientific controversy, scientists tell the story as if they were blindsided by public outrage, as if they never in their wildest imaginations thought citizens would react negatively to a research topic.

No doubt, this subjective experience is grounded in some truth. But in most cases, it seems likely that simply exchanging ideas with a fellow scholar or researcher on one’s own campus—but someone with a completely different background—could vastly improve our own fundamental understanding of where these public objections come from. I guarantee that we could almost always find and predict what may be seeds of controversy if we are willing and open to hearing our own colleagues.

To be clear, I do not believe that some magical way of talking about science will be able to quash public controversy over scientific research. But if controversies over scientific research teach us anything, it should be this: remaining open to alternative viewpoints can often be enlightening and should always be valued.

Consistently engaging in open conversation about our science and appreciating this type of communication is the only long-term way to ensure that we can contribute significantly to the societal-level challenges our disciplines and our research aim to solve.

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