The world’s challenges are inter-disciplinary. Research for their solutions needs to be the same, argues Keith Harrison-Broninski.
Shortly after my book, Human Interactions, was published in 2004, I met with professors at a Management School that had recently received a donation to construct an impressive new building. So, I was expecting to enter an environment full of optimism, challenge, and energy. I set out my formal theory of collaborative work; the professors listened in silence. After the cursory debate that followed their parting comment was: “Well, good luck with changing the way people manage things.”
Was the dismissive reception a comment on my work? Were the professors disillusioned with management theory altogether? Or did they dislike any ideas that crossed conventional boundaries? Further encounters with academics showed that it was most likely the latter.
Around the same time, I agreed to work with a renowned professor of mathematics in his bid to help industry make use of academic work in process calculus. We set up a joint working group with thought leaders in Business Process Management (BPM).
As a first step, we arranged a conference. On the morning of the conference my enthusiasm took a hit, when one of the academics shared with me how he had been confused by people talking about something he hadn’t heard of, “called BPM.”
Inevitably the conference was a parade of papers presented into the void. The academics were there only to promote their own work. They rattled through their arcane papers so fast that the industry thinkers in attendance couldn’t engage. Soon the working group fizzled out.
These and other interactions with academics would be amusing, if the situation as a whole wasn’t tragic. To solve global economic, social, and ecological crises we need a broad-based approach to systemic challenges. Why are cross-disciplinary approaches so difficult to get off the ground?
Interactions with academics would be amusing, if the situation as a whole wasn’t tragic.
In a 2017 Bank of England working paper, An interdisciplinary model for Macroeconomics, the authors claim: “Insularity is partly a natural consequence of stratification because academic disciplines exist as partially ring-fenced areas of enquiry where specialists develop and focus their attentions … Inter-disciplinary work involves extra costs, particularly those arising from co-ordination across subject areas, from the most respected journals having a natural bias to that field and from the difficulties of accurate reviewing across subjects.”
This focus on cost is a natural one for an economist but the most significant barriers are practical. It takes a lot of effort to maintain the expertise necessary to advance in a specialist field. This leaves little time to keep up with research in other fields. And the pressure is especially great for academics who teach as well as research. Preparation of cross-disciplinary material can seem like an overwhelming task. Facing questions from students may be daunting.
There are, however, encouraging indicators in some quarters.
In his 2015 paper in Nature, Interdisciplinary Research by the Numbers, Richard Van Noorden finds that different disciplines respond differently to these challenges. Health in particular “seems very interdisciplinary because it incorporates broad fields such as public health and social aspects of medicine.” There may be more to this than a connection between health and other social sciences. Health is not an abstract discipline. It doesn’t deal primarily with symbols in a formal notation. Health is about people, and its practitioners feel responsible for their welfare. Health professionals typically care deeply about patient outcomes, and learn from experience that wellness is far more than the absence of illness. Wellness is a holistic condition reaching far beyond indicators of physical and mental wellbeing.
Recognising this, at its foundation in 1948 the World Health Organisation proposed that health should be linked to “physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity”. The Faculty of Public Health of the UK’s Royal Colleges of Physicians defines three overlapping domains in which public health practice should operate, going beyond health services to include health improvement and health protection. Health improvement addresses inequalities, employment and housing, family and community, education, and lifestyle interventions. The aims of health protection include cleaner air, water, and food and prevention of war and social disorder. The “wellness wheel” (Figure 1) depicts some of the ways in which wellness depends on other areas of life.
Four years on from Van Noorden’s paper, a further statistical analysis in the same journal opened with a call to arms: “Addressing many of the world’s contemporary challenges requires a multifaceted and integrated approach, and interdisciplinary research has become increasingly central to both academic interest and government science policies.” The paper goes on to demonstrate evidence for a common-sense notion – that higher interdisciplinarity is associated with higher research impact. Academics working in health are not the only ones who know this.
Computer Science departments from Finland to India have flown me out to give keynotes. Academics in information technology (IT) were always keen for new ideas, and didn’t mind how far out of their comfort zone this took them. Feedback on the lines of “We’re not ready for this yet,” was almost always followed by, “but we will be.”
IT is self-consciously about the future. Thought leaders in the subject are constantly looking for new opportunities to exploit with technology. The pace of change renders textbooks out of date almost by the time they are published. By contrast, many other disciplines focus on consolidating a corpus of knowledge. They teach a canon of standard reference works that changes only at a glacial pace – and despite the vast range of modern progressive thought, economics is a prime culprit (Figure 2).
My journey through progressive research in multiple disciplines has led me to an axiomatic model of community-based economics (see box). This approach, of combining formality with openness in the search for practical remedies to systemic social issues, is what global society needs.
The further you look, the more gaps you will find in your thinking but gaps are not threatening; they are opportunities to create positive change.
Any academic who agrees will see the need for a broad-based approach to literature review and peer review. And they will wish to reposition their outputs. To do this takes not only hard work but also confidence. The further you look, the more gaps you will find in your thinking but gaps are not threatening; they are opportunities to create positive change. Now that global society faces existential threats at multiple levels, arguably, all academics need to think in this way. Research topics must seek to make real positive impacts on society. Research methods must include collaborative structures – for which formal collaboration theory may well be a critical enabler.
Only in this way can academics pull their weight. Societal challenges are generally systemic, and therefore wide-ranging in their causes and consequences. A pandemic is not just a biological issue. It is technological, sociological, financial, economic, political, historical, anthropological, artistic, and more. The same applies to financial inequality, political extremism, climate change, anthropocene extinction, tax evasion, mega-crime, cyber-terrorism, and other modern threats to global wellbeing.
Crises are cross-disciplinary. Researchers that position themselves within a self-contained field of study, and the teachers who defend those boundaries, can do little to contribute to the solutions we need.