The day to day workings of interdisciplinary research depend on project size

By Geoff Wells, Casey Ryan and Janet Fisher, University of Edinburgh
February 12, 2018

Calls for interdisciplinary research are on the rise. Research councils increasingly want to fund it, and journals increasingly want to publish it. But the day to day practice of bringing together disciplines remains challenging for even experienced research teams.

Reflecting on our experiences under the Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA) programme, we suggest that interdisciplinary teams must be structured to support cross-disciplinary communication and the adaptability of the research process – and that teams may become more hierarchical and more managerially demanding in bigger projects.

Interdisciplinarity requires communication and adaptability

The ESPA programme funded numerous studies on ecosystems and human wellbeing. Research focusing on complex social-ecological systems will often have to start by drawing artificial boundaries around a feasible sub-system to study. Initial research questions and methods may inevitably capture only parts of the picture, so processes to foster understanding and critical reflection between disciplines are required, even after data collection and analysis have begun. But, how can research teams ensure this depth of interaction and adaptability in their day to day work? And how do such processes change with the size of a study?

Two projects: similar on paper, different in practice

Here we contrast the practicalities of two interdisciplinary ESPA projects of different scales: the smaller Streamlining Monitoring for Smallholder and Community Payments for Ecosystem Services (SMSPES) project; and the much larger Abrupt Changes in Ecosystem Services and Wellbeing in Mozambican Woodlands (ACES) project.

SMSPES (£350k) ran for 24 months and involved a core team of one full-time and four part-time researchers, working with small field teams in Uganda and Mexico to measure trees, interview farmers, conduct remote sensing analyses and model carbon on 31 small farms. Study results (so far) have been published in a single paper and a policy brief.

ACES (£2M) ran for 51 months and involved a core team of six postdoctoral researchers, two research assistants, and a large group of other academics working part-time. Fieldwork involved large field teams working across 1700 households in 26 villages in Mozambique, covering land use surveys, household socioeconomic surveys, tree measurements and remote sensing. Results are being published in several papers (see here, here, here, and here for those published so far) and several policy briefs.

On paper, our approach to interdisciplinarity was similar for both projects: ‘disciplinary’ work packages linked by one or more ‘integrative’ work packages. The integrative packages would communicate between disciplines, while piloting phases would allow for adaptation. In practice, however, the scale of the two projects meant that we adopted very different ways of working.

Bigger studies need many interdisciplinary brains

First, in the larger project we needed more people and time to communicate, negotiate and agree between disciplines. The smaller project was simple enough to fit (more or less) into the head of one generalist involved in all work packages, and who could then interact with the other (more specialised) researchers. The larger project, however, was too complex and ambitious for this. Instead we relied on periodic meetings and ad hoc communication between representatives from different work packages. This inevitably resulted in a less streamlined coordination process than for the smaller SMSPES project, and required a much higher level of management and facilitation.

Size brings methodological inertia

Second, the larger project, once underway, had less flexibility - or greater ‘methodological inertia’. While rigorous piloting protects against this to a degree, big field campaigns, such as that of ACES, can become more rigid as resources are invested into particular pathways of data collection. In contrast, it was relatively easy for us to adjust data collection as it proceeded in the SMSPES project, which had much less ambitious fieldwork. This meant that, in later stages of the project, ACES once again required proportionately more work to adapt the available data to respond to the evolving interests in the project research questions.

From responsible autonomy to spoke-and-hub coordination

We suggest that our experiences under ESPA illustrate generally how approaches to interdisciplinary research, and to team organisation generally, change with scale and complexity. In smaller projects, an integrative researcher with ‘responsible autonomy’ has more chance of understanding the whole project, and of being able make changes. In larger projects, even the most dedicated researcher cannot fulfil this role alone, so teams instead tend towards a more hierarchical ‘spoke-and-hub’ model. This requires the project leadership team in the ‘hub’ to have the time and resources to examine and understand all of the complexities in each part of the project.

The day to day of interdisciplinarity research project is extremely rewarding, but also challenging. We suggest that appreciating the effects of project scale on research team organisation and resourcing is key to good interdisciplinarity research.