How to work in interdisciplinary teams

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Centre for Decision Research

Wändi Bruine de Bruin is Professor of Behavioural Decision Making, as well as Director of the Centre for Decision Research and Deputy Director for the Priestley International Centre for Climate at the University of Leeds. She has been conducting interdisciplinary research for more than 20 years, on understanding and informing people’s decisions about their personal health, household finances, and environmental impacts. The below blog post offers insights into how to conduct interdisciplinary research and is based on Professor Bruine de Bruin’s paper for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The research was also presented at the US National Academy of Sciences in 2017 which was recorded and can be viewed online.

Wandi Bruine de Bruin

Because most academic disciplines typically focus on only one narrow aspect of an issue, interdisciplinary teams are needed to understand and inform societal problems.

In my research, I aim to apply insights from behavioural decision making to examine how people make decisions about, for example, their health, finances, and environmental impacts. If my research finds that people have difficulties in making those decisions, my goal is to develop communications or interventions to help with overcoming those difficulties. Almost all of the research I have conducted in the past 20 years has been interdisciplinary in nature. My collaborators have included medical doctors in projects that aimed to inform people’s health decisions, economists and financial experts in projects that aimed to inform people’s financial decisions, and engineers and environmental scientists in projects that aimed to inform people’s environmental decisions.

Working with people from other disciplines can sometimes be a little bit like going to a foreign country. After extensive training in one specific field, we have been taught to think and talk a certain way. It may mean we no longer speak the same language or use the same frame of reference as others who have not been trained in our field. Fields also differ in terms of culture. For example, academics from some fields wait politely until speakers have completed their presentation. They consider interruptions to be rude. In other fields, it is considered completely normal to interrupt a speaker on the first slide. They consider a lack of interruptions to be a sign of lack of interest. If misunderstood, differences in language and culture can seriously undermine the effectiveness of interdisciplinary collaborations.

Below, I describe the conditions that, in my experience, have been important for fostering effective interdisciplinary collaborations.

1. Shared research goal

Different fields tend to prefer different theories and methods, as well as different research questions. Having a shared goal, such as addressing a specific real-world problem, can help to overcome quibbles about the academic focus. If a disagreement occurs about how to address the real-world problem, a study can be designed to identify the most promising approach. For example, in a study with economists at the US Federal Reserve, my colleagues and I initially disagreed whether it would be better to ask survey questions about expectations for ‘inflation’ or ‘prices in general.’ Both wordings technically have the same meaning. However, our research found that questions that asked about the former led to fewer disagreements between consumers about what the question meant, and also led to expectations that were more in line with actual inflation.
2. Shared methodology

It helps if the project can build on a shared methodology that integrates the expertise of those involved. If done well, such a shared methodology recognises complementary strengths of the different fields represented in the team. For example, academics from some fields may have better methodologies for understanding the human dimensions of a problem, while academics from other fields may have better methodologies for understanding the technical dimensions. Combining multiple approaches may lead to the best hope for tackling the problem at hand.

3. Shared effort

On each project, my team members commit to sharing the effort. We make everyone’s role explicit, but consult each other on every step. We also recognise that, due to our different backgrounds, we have to take care to understand and address each other’s concerns, explain the methods of our respective fields, and learn a little bit about each other’s language and academic culture. I believe that doing so has helped me to communicate better about our findings, to wider interdisciplinary audiences beyond my own field.

4. Shared benefits

One shared benefit of interdisciplinary collaborations is that they bring greater promise of tackling societal problems. It helps if all team members see that the collaboration will make the project stronger than it would have been if everyone worked solely within their own discipline. I personally have found that I have learned a lot from interdisciplinary collaborations, in terms of research and communication skills. I have also found that interdisciplinary collaborations can further the development of my individual discipline, by testing ideas in new contexts.

In regards to the publication strategy, it helps to identify journals that are interested in tackling the real-world problem at hand. Recent years have seen the rise of a variety of excellent, well refereed, interdisciplinary journals that are respected by multiple fields. For example, I have published my interdisciplinary work on health in Medical Decision Making, my interdisciplinary work on finances in the Journal of Economic Psychology and my interdisciplinary work on environmental issues at Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

5. Excellent Early Career Researchers

Good interdisciplinary research projects benefit from involving excellent Early Career Researchers. In most projects, the bulk of the day-to-day work is done by graduate or post-doctoral students. Often, those Early Career Researchers are the ones navigating the balance between the team members and their disciplines. Early Career Researchers are often the glue that keeps interdisciplinary projects together, in part because they are less committed to singular disciplines and more motivated to do what is needed to address the societal problem at hand.

6. Adequate funding

In recent years, funders have been increasingly seeking to support interdisciplinary research. I have been fortunate to write successful proposals, and have shared my experiences in a blog post here. Securing funding for interdisciplinary work requires being able to identify an important societal problem, to argue that more than one discipline is needed to resolve the societal problem, and that combining those disciplines will also strengthen the academic literature.

7. Supportive environment

These days, while most universities talk a good line about interdisciplinary research and education, the number in which that rhetoric has been matched by support in reality, is relatively low. Many traditional academic departments still tend to be confused by interdisciplinary research. My advice is therefore to choose your academic institution with care. Nonetheless, you may be asked to first and foremost meet the criteria of your own discipline. You may find, for example, that your institution tends to place a greater emphasis on journals on a specific list. I would suggest aiming to publish in the more interdisciplinary journals on the list but also target top journals in other disciplines, so that findings get shared more widely. It is important to consider where the article will get the greatest visibility and have the biggest impact.

8. Interpersonal connection

Interdisciplinary research is not for everyone, but whether a collaboration is within or across disciplines, my colleagues and I have found that projects progress more smoothly if people get along well. Even seemingly small gestures may promote team cohesion, as illustrated by the following example. I am a big fan of the colour purple. My collaborator Granger Morgan and I prepared a presentation on our interdisciplinary research on climate communications at the National Academy of Sciences’ “Science of Science Communication” Colloquium, Granger proposed to include purple in our color scheme. When I talked the slide headings were purple. Granger made his slide headings green, because it goes well with purple. We then decided that I should wear my favourite purple outfit and Granger bought a green shirt, so we could each dress in line with our colour scheme. As you can see in our video, our presentation ended up being a lot of fun, and hopefully, also informative.

Conclusion

Interdisciplinary collaborations are essential to addressing societal problems and for developing individual disciplines. My colleagues and I have also found these interdisciplinary projects to be personally and intellectually gratifying. It is worth investing the time to create effective interdisciplinary relationships as the experience and outcomes are so beneficial.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University business school or the University of Leeds.