Multidisciplinarity – interdisciplinarity in tackling global challenges

A special issue of Nature, September 17, 2015 published articles on interdisciplinarity in science. The article by Robert Van Noorden shows some interesting figures and numbers on this topic. The popularity of interdisciplinary has been varying over time, but currently it seems to be on the rise and is the most popular ever now in the twenty-first century.

Is interdisciplinarity needed? Scientists, policymakers and also funders consider it important in solving complicated questions. Horizon2020 programmes, for example, strongly emphasise interdisciplinary approaches and also require an evaluation of impact of the proposed research from different points of view.

Does interdisciplinarity have impact? It depends on how you measure it and what is the timeframe. In terms of citations, papers with less interdisciplinarity gained more citations compared to those with more interdisciplinarity over a 3-year period. However, in a longer period up to 13 years citations of the more interdisciplinary papers overcame those with a less diverse scope. Of course, impact is not only counting citations but considering other impact such as societal, health, technological and economic impact as well.

Is interdisciplinary research easy to do? Nowadays, research often needs expertise of different fields of science. “Low hanging fruit” in science are not easy to catch any more. It may take time to find the common language between experts from different disciplines. It takes time to deliver, but it can be rewarding.

Is it related to the field of science? It is notable that e.g. clinical medicine papers rarely cite papers from other disciplines of science. On the other hand “health science” in a broader sense and social studies of medicine in particular seem be very interdisciplinary.

Does it work in Finland? There are still too many barriers between universities, faculties, departments, professions, and research groups. The strategic research funding (STN) funding instrument is one way to facilitate interdisciplinarity – however, top down. I think that it is better to promote science across borders and spontaneous interaction between research groups with different expertise – bottom up.

It is not easy but it may be rewarding and productive. I recommend it!

Hilkka Soininen (2)Hilkka Soininen
Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences