State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Earth Institute Experts Share Key to Successful Interdisciplinary Research

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The Earth Institute’s goal is to tackle the sustainability issues that are plaguing the world today. Many of these problems sit at the intersection of multiple different research disciplines. For example, working to improve the resilience of New York City’s infrastructure in the face of coastal storms calls on the expertise of economics, oceanography, and anthropology, to name a few. Interdisciplinary problems such as this contrast with the usual organization of academic research, which is often divided into distinct departments.

Managing a project that spans multiple disciplines comes with many daunting challenges that have the potential to stifle a project before it even starts. The Earth Institute acts as a network to bring together researchers from different disciplines and provide support. However, the process of building interdisciplinary projects is still challenging for a number of reasons, including finding the right people or disciplines necessary to get a well-rounded view of a problem, securing funding, and publishing results.

In early 2019, Fulbright scholar Paul Bolger came to the Earth Institute with the purpose of investigating the current state of interdisciplinary work within Columbia University. In order to address the aforementioned issues and try to assuage some of the fears that surround interdisciplinary work, Bolger suggested that the Earth Institute create a case study of a selection of successful interdisciplinary projects. From August to December of 2019, I conducted a series of 15 interviews with Earth Institute researchers and picked their brains about their experiences with interdisciplinary work to learn best practices, tales of caution, and about their experiences in general.

What I found upon synthesizing the results together into a case study document was that many of the best practices revolved around consistent and efficient communication. Similar to the recipe for a successful group project in any professional or academic setting, outlining clear expectations in regard to each team member’s role from the beginning and maintaining regular meetings were mentioned by over half of the interviewees as key to successful projects.

The real roadblocks that the researchers brought up as posing a threat to the success of interdisciplinary projects existed not within interpersonal interactions, but rather at an institutional level. Research support from universities and government organizations has historically favored disciplinary work. Thus, many funding opportunities are not designed for or awarded to interdisciplinary projects. In addition, reputable research journals have historically been established upon the pillars of single disciplines and often don’t find interdisciplinary work specific enough to any one of the disciplines involved to publish in their pages.

These are fairly harmful roadblocks in the world of research, as both funding and publishing are necessary for career success and upward movement in the research world. However, the establishment of global agendas such as the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals are lending more urgency to efforts that address interdisciplinary issues such as world hunger and climate change. As organizations like the Earth Institute continue to foster support for these types of projects, funding agencies and journals are being forced to acknowledge that this is the direction that future research is heading in. Slowly, these roadblocks are starting to be broken down.

The full case study details specific examples of how some researchers overcame these challenges. You can find it here or on the Earth Institute’s new online Research Database.

Beyond these results, this case study document also highlights short profiles of the impressive projects that the interviewees have completed or are currently working on within the Earth Institute. Even if you are not a researcher, it is worth taking a look to learn a little more of the behind the scenes details about some of the Earth Institute’s biggest projects.

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