What´s this thing called interdisciplinaryscience?

This post will be a rather personal account on a subject that pop up every now and then, both in my research activities and in the public debate around how to pursue scientific research. I have to admit that I have no intention to give an answer on the question that pose as a headline for this post. So for those of you who came looking for something that might take you out of your bewilderment around interdisciplinary science, I am afraid that you have to turn to somebody else for a clear answer(s). However, I would like to begin with stating that many accounts on this kind of research confuse the word interdisciplinary with multidisciplinary. Multidisciplinary science is nowadays, at least in my opinion, the common way to talk about and conduct interdisciplinary science. As such, I suspect that multidisciplinary approaches are very much a standard procedure within academia today, and it is nothing wrong with that. It is excellent and a worthy practice on its own. It might also be the only way to conduct collaborations across disciplinary boundaries, considering the lack of definitions and infrastructures etc. that exists in relation to its sister: interdisciplinary science. The simple definition of multidisciplinary science is the coming together of scholars from different disciplines to work upon a common or overarching problem from various angles. This means that every scholar employs his/hers methodological points of departure upon the problem area that are to be covered which accordingly becomes analysed and framed in a multidisciplinary fashion. I think that the notion of a trans-disciplinary science does catch the same aspect: A common area of investigation which is attacked through the methodology of various scientific disciplines.
However, this is not the same as interdisciplinary science even though you might think so when you see the way multidisciplinary science is framed both within academia and policies etc. So, what is interdisciplinary science then? I had lunch the other day with a colleague of mine which shares the same multidisciplinary background as my self, and we tried to come to some sort of definition and point of departure. We failed. In my opinion interdisciplinary science do abandon the “multi” and goes for the incorporation of common point of departures, including methodological, when addressing an area of investigation. This means giving up, or reconfiguring, those disciplinary assumptions that are intrinsic to each discipline and crafting new points of departures which incorporates aspects from each scientific discipline when formulating joint aims and research questions. Is this doable? I do not know, really. I suppose that this kind of endeavour might be more easily accomplished if we stick to those disciplines that are situated close to each other, and that share a great deal of a common background as to methodological issues etc. But I do suspect that this “do-ability” becomes harder as we depart from this common background, the scientific lifeworld so to speck, and venture into joint ventures that spread across large distances such as between social science and natural sciences. In fact we might ask ourselves, as we did during our lunch the other day, what comprise an interdisciplinary research question. We did not come to an answer, but maybe is the question of the relationship between our biological underpinnings and politics an example which might pose for an interdisciplinary approach. Of course there are others, but as a spontaneous suggestion, the question of the connection between human biology and the political organization of the society comes to my mind first. But the point to take home is that such attempt would mean new methodological approaches that favour the interdisciplinary instead of the multidisciplinary.
If we are to pursue these interdisciplinary attempts to solve scientific problems, there must of course be an infrastructure present for those who want to pursue this kind of scientific practice. There must be formalized ways which are specifically directed towards interdisciplinary (and multidisciplinary) research as a way to get grants and financial support. Today, we might often face systems that are geared towards the disciplinary rather than towards the interdisciplinary way of doing science. Moreover, there must also be an infrastructure present for those scholars who work with an interdisciplinary (or multidisciplinary) point of departure as a way to cultivate this kind of reasoning and the development of methodologies etc. Hopefully, this kind of infrastructure can be established in the wake of the public endorsement for interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research ventures. Another way to cultivate this infrastructure is to work on the small scale of doing things. I have had the opportunity to take part, on a weekly basis, in discussions with a number of neuroscientists within my research project. In these meetings we have been able to establish a better understanding of our different methodologies and actually come to understand that there we do share a lot of common assumptions with regards to scientific methods etc. This interdisciplinary practice takes place on a small basis, but is nevertheless interdisciplinary science taking place at the grass-root level. Such attempts constitutes the first step in building those common assumptions that are part of crafting interdisciplinary research aims and research questions. In a sense interdisciplinary science is all about communication and opening up new ways to approach areas of research.


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