State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Interdisciplinary Work: Big Challenge, But Not Impossible

Health professionals, epidemiologists, health management workers and health policymakers are increasingly concerned about the potential impact that climate variability and climate change could have on public health. However, many public health professionals are not yet aware of the ways in which climate information can help them manage the impacts of climate on their work. At the same time, climate scientists are not aware of how they can fill the information needs from the public health sector. Interdisciplinary work and dialogue is necessary to bridge this gap.

Public health is an effort organized by society to protect, promote and restore the people’s health. It is the combination of sciences, skills and beliefs directed to the maintenance and improvement of health through collective or social actions. In this context, climate researchers should be considered a part of the public health community.

As a physician, epidemiologist and lately, as climate-health researcher working within this framework, I have been faced with two interesting challenges. The first is language, not only the difficulty of working outside Spanish, my mother tongue, but the exclusive coded languages developed and used by disciplines (concepts, technical terms, and equations), which often have the potential to confuse outsiders. Concepts have different meanings for different disciplines. The challenge becomes even greater in a second language where common words carry disciplinary meanings not found in standard dictionaries. Interdisciplinary researchers must overcome these barriers in order to develop and work in a common language.

A second basic challenge is related to the sociology of science. Often, to grow within their chosen discipline, scientists must follow a set of unwritten rules that govern their discipline. This leads to the view that interdisciplinary research is “soft science” and doesn’t count because it does not match to disciplinary traditions or is published in less important journals. The problem, from my perspective, is that interdisciplinary work takes time to build up and for all parties to become familiar with the different approaches and perspectives. It requires mutual trust, respect and open-mindedness that emphasizes complementarities–what individuals from disciplines bring to the project–rather than the gaps in their own disciplines.

So I believe projects must meet a “win-win” condition for all partners to provide the necessary incentive for the extra effort they require. In short, there must be increasing recognition within the scientific community that interdisciplinary work offers a significant contribution not only to the academic world but also to the society in general. The key to fruitful interdisciplinary dialogue requires specialists to define the problems as they see them even while recognizing the limits of the solutions and expertise they can offer. Although the time frames for physical, social and biological sciences can often be very different and difficult to match, true collaboration is possible with persistence, understanding and goodwill. For this reason, I encourage climate and public health researchers and professionals to move toward interdisciplinary effort to protect, promote and restore the people’s health from the potential impact that climate variability and climate change could have on them.

Gilma Mantilla is a senior staff associate at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI)

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