Research. holistic approaches

October 10, 1997

Cath Cotton talks to academics about breaking down barriers in the brave world of interdisciplinarity

Transport research at the University of Oxford: interdisciplinary research a cross natural and social sciences

"TRANSPORT is by nature interdisciplinary," says John Preston, director of the Transport Studies Unit at Oxford University. "Alan Wilson, the founding father of transport modelling in the 1960s moved from physics to geography, before moving to transport."

The national multi-modal travel forecast project that Dr Preston is involved in is part of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council's built environment programme.

Mathematicians and statisticians forecast travel demands and economists work out the policy implications.

Dr Preston sees this integration of disciplines as crucial to the project: "The aims of the project require a range of skills, enabling a more holistic approach."

But there are practical problems running an interdisciplinary research team.

"Interdisciplinary research involves a rather circular model that requires a lot of feedback. This project has meetings every fortnight, yet only a fraction of people are active in the meetings at any one time.

"Some people from different disciplines do not make enough effort to be interdisciplinary. For example, mathematicians may see data as pure evidence without thinking about the policy implications."

Amanda Root, another member of the team, agrees:"It is easy to feel marginalised as a social scientist among physical scientists."

Dr Preston adds that similar problems can arise even within conventional disciplines.

"People are trained to think in a certain way. People in the same discipline who went to different universities may be trained to think either inductively or deductively. It's not just a disciplinary thing - it may reflect more where people were educated."

Environmental research at the Natural History Museum:interdisciplinary research across the natural sciences

INTERDISCIPLINARY research plays a fundamental role in one of the world's leading institutions for research into the life sciences.

The Natural History Museum in London has organised its research into six interdisciplinary themes that cross the museum's departmental boundaries. They include ecological patterns and processes, biomedical sciences, and environmental quality.

The aim of the latter is to assess the impact of mineralogical, geochemical and human disturbance on the environment.

Under the umbrella of the environmental quality theme, multidisciplinary teams of botanists, zoologists, mineralogists and entomologists investigate a range of problems, from the use of micro-organisms in wastewater treatment to the role of biological studies in assessing air quality.

Chris Stanley, associate keeper in the mineralogy department, heads the organisms and metals programme.

He sees the museum's structure as conducive to useful interdisciplinary research.

"In our uranium uptake project we have botanists, lichenologists, geochemists and a zoologist, which allows us to study the metal's uptake by organisms, and to assess the impact of metalcontamination on biodiversity and environmental quality," Dr Stanley says.

"With this approach, each member brings something the others can't contribute. But departmental structures remain. This means that people still have a home, otherwise they might feel alienated."

But like other coordinators of research that draws on several disciplines, Dr Stanley warns of the importance of communication. "It is very important to communicate extremely regularly and to be very clear about what your objectives are. Otherwise you can really mess up a scientific relationship if it is fairly fragile."

Communication is really everything in this sort of thing."

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