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Otto Muskens Otto Muskens 31 March 2012

Doing multidisciplinary research

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Posted in applied research, Getting published, Research and education, Tips

Introduction

Science in the 20th century has been divided into a distinct number of more or less separate disciplines ranging from Mathematics and Physics to Biology and Medicine. This distinction was naturally based on the different aspects of our material and living environment under study. In all disciplines one can clearly define ‘core’ subjects which fall in the traditional categories without any overlap with other fields. However, there is an increasing amount of research taking place at the interface or overlapping between disciplines. For a person trained in one of the traditional sciences, it can be hard to look beyond the boundaries and spot opportunities for cross-disciplinary research. This post presents some aspects of multidisciplinary research encountered when starting up a new research line.

Advantages

Engaging in multidisciplinary research has a number of definite advantages:

  1. Your specific approach and knowledge may be standard for your discipline but novel in other fields. Applying your knowledge in this new field can give you a leading advantage and a unique angle to solving outstanding problems.
  2. Monodisciplinary fields can become very crowded with specialists and the number of distinct topics to be studied is limited. Often a certain school or professor produces a number of postgraduates who wish to establish themselves in a scientific career. They cannot all keep doing exactly the same things in the same field.
  3. By teaming up with complementary research groups one can combine the collective expertise and gain synergy. This results in increased chances in original (high-impact) research and potential to get more output with less work.

Use your strengths

Going multidisciplinary does not necessary mean leaving behind your own specialism. On the contrary, when defining new scientific directions it is crucial to build on those leading strengths that constitute your track record. By keeping close to your core knowledge, you reduce the risk of drowning in the new field where you are a non-specialist. This means that you have to start early in your career to think about making small steps away from the core of your field, which could give you the necessary track record at a later stage. Also you could choose to do a postdoc in a completely different area than your PhD so that you can combine those skills to develop a unique expertise.

Define your limits

Similar to building on your strengths, you do not want to spread out your research activities too thin. Some scientific group leaders have a preference for doing everything in-house by themselves. Setting up a multidisciplinary group by yourself requires a significant investment in people and equipment as all aspects have to be covered with a variety of equipment. Do you want to do this and do you have the resources? Rather than becoming a multidisciplinary group by yourself it may be much easier to team up with other specialists with complementary skills. Once this collaboration is successful, these groups may be combined into a multidisciplinary research centre.

Select your collaborations

For a multidisciplinary projects to work a collaboration has to be found which is capable to deliver results without being too painful. This is a task easier said than done. A common mistake is to seek out people with the same expertise as yourself, which is natural as these are members of the community you are familiar with. The challenge is to find complementary expertise outside of your comfort zone and team up with individuals who you feel comfortable to work with. Most scientists have strong egos and a significant fraction of scientific collaborations break down because of incompatible personalities and expectations from group leaders. Conflicts usually boil down to disagreements about who gets the corresponding authorship at the end of the ride and who is the principle investigator on the grant. Another contribution to this blog can be filled by summarizing what can go wrong in collaborations and what things to take care of. Generally I only collaborate with people who I trust completely and who have a similar (relaxed) attitude toward the sharing of credit. These can be seniors as well as other junior scientists. Beware for sharks who use your ideas and publish them without putting you on the paper, or who at the crucial point pull their weight and claim intellectual ownership. These things have to be sorted out very clearly at the start of the project and written down. An overview of some of the issues when setting up a collaboration has been given here.

Getting funding

Once preliminary results have been obtained usually from small pots of money or using budgets from other running projects, you might want to get some financial support for the collaboration. Here the advice to use your strengths is important as grant portfolio managers and referees will look at your track record to assess their confidence in the team’s capability to deliver the research. Many research funding organisations still follow traditional models and it might be difficult to get them to support work which combines different disciplines. Often they point their finger to each other saying that the project better fits with the other organization, as nobody has the complete expertise required to assess the proposal. The same holds for reviewers of the project who often are older members of the ‘core’ disciplines who not always appreciate the novelty offered in cross-disciplinary projects. Overall, it is not always easy to get multidisciplinary projects funded in traditional schemes. New stimulation programmes and approaches for dealing with multidisciplinary research have to be developed by the funding agencies.

Conducting multidisciplinary research

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Multidisciplinary projects may be run by specialists who are firmly positioned in their respective disciplines. However, the actual research requires a new type of flexible junior scientists who can bridge the gaps by combining the expertise and skills from different fields. These new people have to be trained, and this is where the added value of multidisciplinary research really pays off as it produces new scientists with unique skill sets which are of vital importance in future R&D careers in industry and academia. Another challenge involves the communication between different fields. Biologists have a completely different approach to problems than physicists or chemists. Often physicists start developing an exciting new technique or attacking a scientifically interesting topic, only to find out that biologists or medicine are not at all waiting for these things as they do not address any of their problems. Medical doctors have a natural tendency to be more conservative in their approach and not easily inclined to adapt to new and unconventional ideas than curiosity-driven scientists.

Getting published

Multidisciplinary research can pose unique problems when trying to get results published. Again, different communities have different expectations for scientific output. In the specific example which I am familiar with, that of nano-bio research, there are specialized journals that like to publish multidisciplinary nano-research, such as Nano Letters, ACS Nano, and Small. Referees in these journals are usually other nano-bio researchers or chemists. If one wants to publish the same nano-bio results in a more biological journal, one has to deal with experts in biological science with often a more traditional view. Also a biological referee is likely to request a completely different set of control experiments than a physical chemist. By collaborating with experts in other disciplines, you can cover these aspects as they will know what is the standard in that particular area. On the other hand, if you try to do everything by yourself you may hit the wall just because you don’t know the language and conventions of the other fields.

Conclusion

Thus, if you can overcome the challenges associated with multidisciplinary research, it can be very rewarding to try moving into this direction. Multidisciplinary science requires a certain mindset, openness for collaborations and capability to set aside your ego and share credit. In order to facilitate cross-disciplinary research, institutes should encourage interaction between different disciplines by organizing events where scientists can meet and share ideas in an informal setting. Multidisciplinary research requires an awareness of the relevant outstanding problems and ongoing activities outside of your comfort zone.

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