The challenges of interdisciplinarity: Insights from a research programme on climate change

Benjamin Apraku Gyampoh, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology
February 9, 2018

Addressing the complex challenges of climate change requires pulling together expertise from different disciplines. As the manager of the Climate Impacts Research Capacity and Leadership Enhancement (CIRCLE) at the African Academy of Science (AAS), I have come to appreciate first-hand both the importance and the difficulties of interdisciplinarity.

“Coping with the effects of climate change requires strategic approaches by building capacity in multi and trans-disciplinary areas. It is for this reason that the CIRCLE  programme offers fellowships in selected multidisciplinary thematic fields.” -- CIRCLE website

The CIRCLE programme had two main objectives: assisting early career researchers to develop cutting-edge research skills in climate impact research, enabling them to become research leaders, and strengthening institutions to provide an enabling environment for researchers to thrive. From the outset, an interdisciplinarity focus was identified and promoted. In particular, while the programme was supporting individual researchers (who, typically, came from a mono-disciplinary background) it sought to have collaborations built and integration of methods among disciplines – for example, by matching researchers with supervisors from different disciplines, in order to constructively address a given research question from an innovative perspective. In spite of these good intentions, the devil is always in the details, and before long it became evident that the intent to ensure interdisciplinary research is not easily achieved.

Here I’d like to share some personal reflections on the challenges that we have encountered in our interdisciplinarity pursuit.

§  Narrow disciplinary assessment of problems. It was evident from many proposals that researchers had not had a systematic assessment of the issues they intended to address to know the various components. This lack of systems thinking meant that not much was being done to understand the various facets of the problem and determine which different disciplines or expertise will be necessary in addressing them.

§  Vague understanding of interdisciplinary research. Some researchers and their supervisors did not have a clear understanding of interdisciplinary research. There were those that simply considered interdisciplinary research as having two researchers from different backgrounds or fields working together on the same problem. There was usually no integration of ideas from the different disciplines; there was no integration of methodologies. At best the researcher listened to the supervisor and went ahead to do what they wanted to do. There was no real working together in most situations. The different disciplines stuck to their concepts and methodologies and often had simmering conflicts between researcher and supervisor on the best methodology to use. It must be recognized that the researchers who were early career researchers were not Masters or PhD students; they were employed lecturers from their home universities. They were, therefore, in many cases ‘colleagues’ with their supervisors and did not relate as students who may just accept the views/positions of their supervisors.

§  Lack of appreciation for ‘the other discipline’. There were instances where the researchers had written to request that their supervisors be changed. The only reason was that the supervisors were not within their disciplines. The rich benefits of such interdisciplinary approach was being lost because in most instances the researchers were looking for intradisciplinary research than interdisciplinary research.

§  Uncompromising and defensive disciplinary stance. In many instances, the researcher understood and appreciated the added value brought by other disciplines to the study – yet the urge to ‘defend’ their own disciplinary approach came in the way of interdisciplinary research. In most instances, the driving challenge has been communication and perception. Where researchers perceived that their discipline’s approach was being looked at as inferior, the reaction was defensive. Supervisors complained about their researchers being overly defensive and unwilling to find a common ground for working together. There cannot be true interdisciplinary research without integration of insights, concepts, approaches, thinking and methodologies. To successfully do this requires compromise.

Interdisciplinary research is something that is desired but one that is usually poorly done because it is poorly understood. One needs to be very strong in his discipline in order to be effective in an interdisciplinary research – however, this strength is not to be used to defend the discipline, but rather to quickly identify commonalities with other disciplines, recognize the value added of other disciplines, and explore integration paths. Researchers cannot undertake interdisciplinary research when they do not understand the concept at all or vaguely understand what it means. Before two researchers or group of researchers can work together on an interdisciplinary study, effort and resources must be committed into training them to understand what interdisciplinary research is.

It is very important to introduce students to interdisciplinary approaches to problem solving early on. In my new position as a Lecturer at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, I teach a course in “Environmental Systems Analysis and Interdisciplinary research”. I do this with lot of interest; I have experience at first hand the importance of being trained in this concept. My students are beginning to appreciate new ways of thinking and undertaking research.

About the author

Dr. Benjamin A. Gyampoh was a Programme Manager for the African Academy of Science (AAS) in Nairobi, Kenya until December 2017. He has recently moved back to his native Ghana to take up a research and teaching position at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in Kumasi. He blogs on climate change science and related policy issues on  Geothinking.