10.21.2010

Interdisciplinarity isn't easy

I'm currently wrapping up edits on a paper on interdisciplinarity and research success and came across a pretty cool paper for my lit review with a couple of choice quotes:
"[T]he young scientist, who grows up in the midst of a competition between university departments and amidst competition within his department, who inherits the individualistic research tradition and graduates without having had an opportunity to develop skills in cooperative thinking and collaborative study, is poorly prepared to participate in the activities of a committee or a research team.
"Over and above this pressure from the outside, there are important scientific grounds why interdisciplinary (and interdepartmental) research should become a greater concern of the universities. The assertion that institutes of an interdisciplinary character will be associated more often with industrial enterprises than with universities may be correct in the statistical sense, but it should not imply that cooperative research is an industrial prerogative.
"For the research worker who has grown up in the traditional departmentalized university and who is anxious to take part in interdisciplinary work, the first step is to get a bird's-eye view of the neighboring fields and to obtain familiarity with the problems which are currently the foci of interest. However, text-book acquaintance is not enough; some contact with actual work methods is essential. "
I think these are all reasonably fair points. The problem is that this article is from the December 8th, 1944 issue of Science. Reading through it and noting how little change there's been in the language around "interdisciplinary research" is fairly shocking, and makes me appreciate not only how difficult working outside of one discipline is, but also the extent to which the road towards doing quality work combining the social and natural sciences (which is probably the best way to describe the specific flavor of interdisciplinarity that Sol and I are in) has been a long and arduous one.

Not that there hasn't been any progress, mind you. The flip side of interdisciplinary work is field creation. Climatology, neuropsychology, behavioral economics, and an untold number of additional academic disciplines were all, at one point, "inter-discipline." It's just nice to be reminded of the fact that establishing those fields isn't easy.

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