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The pentathlon was a special event in the Olympic games of ancient Greece. Unlike other competitions, it featured five different events, testing an athlete’s ability to perform well in a variety of sports. Over time the popularity of the pentathlon faded and specialized events with specialized athletes became favoured in the Olympics we know today. Similarly, most scientists also specialize, working within a particular research field and often not branching outside of it. Scientific isolationism has been the status quo for centuries due to the obstacles that come with collaboration between research fields in a world without the Internet. Today, more and more scientists are taking a different approach to research, one that uses the athletes of the pentathlon as a model. A new movement in interdisciplinary research is rapidly taking hold in the scientific community and changing the way we think about how science is structured.

Interdisciplinary (ID) research is a method used by individuals or teams that integrates data, techniques, theories, or perspectives from two or more fields of study, often to attempt to solve problems that can’t be solved by one discipline alone. In its simplest form ID research can involve two related fields, such as immunology and cell biology, though in recent times the scope of ID research has expanded to connect distinct fields that rarely interact traditionally. Forensic scientists, for example, require an understanding of diverse topics such as physiology, psychology, criminology, and computer science to piece together the different types of evidence that are involved in an investigation.  

Before the advent of organized education, scholars were expected to possess a general knowledge of the natural world. As universities increased in size, broad study led to research concentrations, which lead to emerging disciplines and distinctions from one scientist to another. For centuries, these niches in expertise were the norm, and only recently has the interest in ID research re-emerged. In 1964, communications theorist and University of Toronto professor Marshall McLuhan described in his seminal work, Understanding Media, that “specialized segments of attention have shifted to total field”, and proposed that the hybridization of different bodies of knowledge would lead to significant discoveries. McLuhan’s prediction was correct, and by the onset of the 21st century many academic institutions began encouraging ID research, with some even offering degree programs in ID science. 

This holistic approach to research opens new avenues for innovation at the individual, group, and community level. Individual scientists are usually trained in a certain discipline and expected to master the field before branching out into others. While an expert in their field of study, an individual might not be aware of information or techniques from other fields that can revive a stalled project or open the door for further research. To prevent this tunnel vision, individuals may benefit by exploring new perspectives from other disciplines to complement their own research program.  

Similarly, group collaboration can be strengthened by reorganizing ‘information silo’ scenarios into more ID-friendly systems. In a typical information silo, a central figure (e.g. principal investigator) receives information from subfigures (collaborating scientists) who receive information from their own subfigures (graduate students). In this system, information gets trapped in ‘silos’ where the central figure is the only one with whom all information is shared. By breaking down information barriers and encouraging communication between subfigures (e.g. lab meetings), the overall quality of research can greatly benefit. 

five running women wearing different dresses holding torch statue

The global scientific community has also been radically changed in recent years by ID research. Besides leading to significant breakthroughs in traditional fields of study, ID research has led to the formation of entirely new research areas. Women’s studies was developed as a response to a significant gap in knowledge that could only be filled by drawing from feminist theory, ethics, social justice, and bio-politics. Other fields of ID research were formed to solve new problems. Environmental science is a complex topic concerning a complex subject: the environment and the growing number of environmental disasters. Ecologists, physicists, climatologists, and information scientists alone cannot address these issues; this discipline was born when these groups came together to tackle the environmental problems of today. 

Critics of ID research, however, have raised several concerns about the efficacy of this approach to science. Some argue that the obstacles to organizing ID research aren’t worth the potential benefits. Different disciplines often use different jargon and hold opposing theories. For example, archaeologists and geneticists often collaborate to study human migration and evolution. Hypotheses from each group are usually drawn from independent bodies of evidence, which can lead to controversy over clashing ideas. ID research is also thought by some to be more difficult to secure funding for, perhaps due to the novelty of the approach. 

Given this extensive research integration, could ID research obfuscate and defocus the fields of study it is based on? Does ID research put us on a path back to the scholars of antiquity: jacks of all trades but masters of none? Most proponents of ID science would disagree. While ID science is a powerful tool, specialization is still a necessity. Researchers are needed at the frontiers of each field but also in between fields to complement each other. The implementation of ID research has been crucial for addressing major challenges in society. Pandemics of the past and present are perhaps the most prolific drivers of ID research, leading to unprecedented collaboration within and between fields of study. To solve these and other multi-faceted issues like climate change and social injustice, we should expect ID research to be even more commonplace in the future. Like specialized scientists, we need those who excel in their chosen sport: the marathon, the long jump, the javelin throw. To connect the dots in science though, we also need ID researchers, the well-rounded people of the pentathlon. 


References:

Aboelela, S. W., Larson, E., Bakken, S., Carrasquillo, O., Formicola, A., Glied, S. A., Haas, J., & Gebbie, K. M. Defining interdisciplinary research: conclusions from a critical review of the literature. Health Services Research, 42, 329–346(2007).

McLuhan, M.Understanding Media. Archived from the original on 11 October 2007. Retrieved 1February2021.(1964).

National Research Council (US) Committee for Monitoring the Nation’s Changing Needs for Biomedical, Behavioral, and Clinical Personnel.Emerging Fields and Interdisciplinary Studies. 8(2005).

Newell, W. H. The Intertwined History of Interdisciplinary Undergraduate Education and the Association for Integrative Studies: An Insider’s View. Issues in Integrative Studies. 26(2008).

Okamura, K. Interdisciplinarity revisited: evidence for research impact and dynamism. Palgrave Communications.5, 141 (2019).

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