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The future is interdisciplinary

By Daniel Woolf      

Given the complexity of social, political, environmental, economic and technological challenges facing the world, interdisciplinary research is very quickly becoming something no country can do without.

Kingston Hall at Queen's University. Canteaus/Wikimedia Commons photograph
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In the past 20 years, interdisciplinary research—studies involving researchers from multiple academic disciplines—has gone from ‘nice to have’ to ‘need to have.’ Today, given the complexity of social, political, environmental, economic and technological challenges facing the world, it is very quickly becoming something no country can do without.

Canada has the skills, talent and capacity to be an international leader in research and innovation. Seizing that opportunity will require concerted effort and unequivocal government support for interdisciplinary as well as traditional discipline-based research. This was recognized by last spring’s federally commissioned Fundamental Science Review, which included a clear call for greater support for research across disciplines. The authors of that document acknowledged research councils have made efforts in this area, but that more must be done to encourage multidisciplinary research.

Why, exactly? Because it exposes specialists in one area to other perspectives and ways of thinking, challenging received truths and spurring creativity and innovation. In many ways, academic disciplines are like houses, and with disciplinary research nearly everything happens “at home.” I personally like to get out of my own house from time to time, talk to other people, and encounter new perspectives.

In research, this “getting out of the house” has become essential because the problems to be confronted spill across borders, cultural divides and fields of knowledge. Take climate change. It’s not just an environmental issue: it has enormous economic and social implications. How can we possibly take on the challenge of modulating climate change without dealing with the impact of environmental change on local communities and Indigenous peoples?

Technology is another case in point. The rise of the ‘Internet of Things’ and advancement of artificial intelligence both present questions we’ve never had to ask before—questions that are not just of a technical nature but also ethical, legal and sociological.

In all these cases, “interdisciplinary” means not just across the hard sciences but the social sciences as well. To focus only on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) is to leave a huge amount of intellectual capacity on the table. This is something that someone like Steve Jobs, for example, understood intuitively. It was the combination of engineering excellence and insight into how people interact that made Apple the company it is today.

The value of social science research is not always easy to quantify, though its absence is keenly felt. This was the case with the rollout of the HPV vaccine a few years ago. Some social science research to understand how the public might perceive the vaccine before it was unveiled could have strengthened communications around the launch—and prevented resistance from parents based on unfounded concerns that it would promote teenage promiscuity.

Some areas of research already employ an interdisciplinary approach regularly. It’s easy to find health science labs with biochemists, biologists, pharmacologists and other specialists working shoulder to shoulder. This needs to be broadened.

Interdisciplinary research is something we prioritize at Queen’s, from our degree program in neuroscience to our centres and institutes that bring together faculty from across departments. Our Dunin-Deshpande Queen’s Innovation Centre (DDQIC), which forms teams of young entrepreneurs from diverse disciplines, is testament to the strength of cross-disciplinary research. It was the incubator for Spectra Plasmonics, an entrepreneurial student project that won first prize at an international pitch competition in Singapore this year, beating 35 international teams.

So what needs to happen for Canada to see and support more interdisciplinary research? First, governments at all levels need to fund it. The bodies that administer that funding need to make sure they don’t impose conditions that serve as impediments to interdisciplinary research, effectively administering people back into the corners of their departments, or allow research projects to fall between the gaps.

Within academia, we have an opportunity to think about ways of forging new connections among disciplines, creating the structures to do this kind of work.

We are at the point today where we have to decide how we want to tackle the future. Greg Bavington, the executive director of DDQIC, often asks, “What kind of hockey team would you have if you had all the best goalies in the world—and no one else?” It takes a well-rounded team to achieve a common goal.

The future will be full of challenge and opportunity—most of which we cannot now predict. Rapid technological advances, geo-political challenges and climate change will test our ability to react and navigate. It is through interdisciplinary research teams that we will be best able to respond to these changes, to innovate, seize new opportunities and improve quality of life—both at home and abroad.

Daniel Woolf is a principal and vice-chancellor at Queen’s University. 

The Hill Times 

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