Editor’s Note: This is the first part of a two-part commentary by Rana Dajani and a group of contributors who met as panelists in a session of the 2017 World Science Forum, held under the leadership of the Royal Scientific Research Support Fund, Jordan.
Many scientists talk about the concept of interdisciplinary research. But the question is, How many have actually worked in interdisciplinary research teams?
Interdisciplinary research is not multidisciplinary research. Interdisciplinary research is daring to go to the edges of disciplines and peeking over to the other side to meet in a new place to explore new questions, perspectives and realities.
Interdisciplinary research results in a synthesis of ingredients that were never mixed together before. This approach is very much needed since the challenges we face today—not the least of which is Covid-19—cannot be solved by one discipline alone.
In order to encourage such activity, funders, governments and universities need to provide support to the brave scientists who are going beyond their comfort zone and breaking new ground.
During the 2017 World Science Forum in Jordan, Princess Sumaya pointed out the importance of being inclusive, joining hands and creating teams to tackle local problems in Jordan. Those Jordanian researchers, in turn, could export solutions to the world, serve as a beacon of hope in the region and inspire future generations.
Building on the discussions in that forum, a group of us who participated want to share examples of how interdisciplinary research can be encouraged.
Sally Jordan, physics education, England
Education lays the foundation for interdisciplinary research. In England, I found the educational system to be very narrow, so when students leave school and commence their studies at universities, they are already considerably specialized. (The situation is better in Scotland.)
In contrast, my university, the Open University, has no entry qualifications, and students can choose to study for an “open degree” taking a range of modules across all faculties. This may have dangers on the labor market, however, because market research showed that students and employers want standard qualifications with standard names, such as a bachelor’s degree in physics.
To gain sufficient expertise in STEM subjects, university students are required to concentrate in courses on their primary subject. However, scientists and social scientists need to appreciate the work done by others, and avoid working in “silos.”
I am investigating demographic gaps in attainment in physics, and to do that I need my physics background to be able understand the difficulties faced by students, yet also use both quantitative and qualitative research methodologies, some of which are beyond my own expertise. This involves working closely with statisticians and education researchers.