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Message from the Director: On Interdisciplinary Collaboration

I can remember the moment like it was yesterday. I was standing at the back of my car, with the trunk open, in the parking lot at California State University, Fresno. I’d just put my backpack in the trunk after the last day of classes of the spring semester, and realized, “YIKES, I’m about to graduate with a bachelor’s of science degree! What’s next?”

Dr. Jason A. Hubbart, Director of the IWSS

I had a simultaneous thought, which was something like, “If I’ve learned anything in college, it is that I know absolutely nothing”. It was a decisive moment, a fork in the road. I was about to make a decision that would prompt me to pursue two more degrees and that would determine the trajectory of my career to the present. My decision in that moment was to do something about my perception that scientists may know too much to independently go forth remaining anchored comfortably in disciplinary silos. I decided that interdisciplinary collaboration is the new frontier of discovery. Of course, this idea flew right in the face of what my advisors had told me through my first three years of college as I studied electrical engineering and then three more years when I shifted disciplines to ecological sciences, and what they would say in the years that followed, “focus, focus, focus!” I was told over and over. “You must focus if you want to carve out your scientific niche, you must dig in deep and develop a name for yourself in your field”. Isn’t this what we still tell our graduate students? Nevertheless, heeding my advisors, I dug in deep, first in electrical engineering, then in ecology, and mammalogy (M.S.), and then physical hydrology (Ph.D). I remained determined to stretch my understanding and competence in other disciplines spanning natural and physical sciences. While I now realize that we scientists must create a specific disciplinary focus that is our own, what makes science really interesting for me is the integration of multiple disciplines in one project or program to achieve discovery(ies) greater than the sum of parts (aka interdisciplinary research). Now, having spent a number of years facilitating and working with interdisciplinary collaborative teams, I’ve noticed that we academics and scientists have a lot to learn about how to create a culture of true, interdisciplinary collaboration.

My goal for this short letter is to raise awareness, promote action, and encourage progressiveness with regard to the concept of interdisciplinary collaboration. Collaboration is very much integral to the land grant mandate (learn more: The Land Grant Tradition) of teaching, research and service and all that we do in higher education, yet how often do we really achieve functional interdisciplinary collaboration? While we assemble in interdisciplinary groups, obtain multi-disciplinary funding, do a project, communicate a bit about sampling designs, data and analyses, that is often where it ends. We organize in interesting diverse teams, but team members may never come to fully appreciate what the others do (and how and why). We often complete an interdisciplinary research project, analyze bits of data in our silo and then assemble an article in which each participant writes one or more independent section(s). In the end, we attempt to quickly discuss broader interdisciplinary implications, but may feel unsatisfied. Perhaps one could have done more with greater time investment and integration of disciplines throughout the study. But since we must publish yesterday we don’t take the time!

In an ideal interdisciplinary collaboration all team members would study, learn and understand at least some of what other team members are doing. This can be accomplished in any number of ways with any number of levels of dedication through reading, training, field days, webinars, etc. Ultimately, many challenges lie before us in this arena. How do we reform the culture of science to include a focus on interdisciplinarity and collaboration? Admittedly, I have many more questions than answers, but here are a few thoughts perhaps relevant to the land grant mission that I’ll offer to prompt and further this conversation:

Education / Teaching: How are we preparing the next generations to think collaboratively, outside the boxes that we are always telling them to think outside of, while simultaneously telling them to focus? Who is offering interdisciplinary and/or collaborative courses that train students how to collaborate? What would that organization look like? Should this be a major initiative for higher education?

Research: Many Requests for Proposals (RFPs) require integration of interdisciplinary collaboration. This requirement of course implies many moving parts (e.g. systems science). Proposals are often written and reviewed by scientists that operate in their silo and may not fully understand the various approach(es) or be able to dedicate the time to navigate inherent complexities of interdisciplinary collaboration. Are we preparing scientists to answer and review those RFPs? Here we are back at the education challenge.

Service: Society and natural resources management issues are more complex now than at any time in human history. Given the intermingled complexities of contemporary society, and the increasing pressures for food, energy and water and other commodities, and that these complex issues are by design and necessity multi-disciplinary, should we reassess our efficacy in serving our constituencies? In effect, are we providing the best and most appropriate information to manage the complex world in which we live, or are we back at the education challenge?

The number one reason I hear from my colleagues for why they cannot do more is simply a lack of time. It’s true, we are all running so fast and so hard these years that it is difficult to do more. Yet, we also recognize the great need to collaborate and the need for greater investment. We have much to learn about how to collaborate, and we might consider if we should be doing more to train our students how as well. So, let’s challenge ourselves to (re)consider what we need to do to improve our collaborations and their impact. Let’s (re)organize the interdisciplinary collaborative enterprise to be most effective and make the great discoveries that are waiting in this new frontier. If you have ideas, we in the Institute of Water Security and Science would like to hear from you.

Wishing you a joyous holiday season!

Jason Hubbart