Why the World Urgently Needs Interdisciplinary Research and Policy Making

(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).

Editor’s Note: This is the second 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. The first part was “Making Interdisciplinary Research Actually Happen.”

Covid-19 is a perfect example of a problem that demands an interdisciplinary approach. The pandemic has exposed vulnerabilities in every nation, independently of their health-care system’s capacity and socio-economic resources. To deal with this crisis, we need the combined efforts of physicians, epidemiologists, biostatisticians, virologists, geneticists, immunologists, and mental health experts. We need informed decision-makers and the research and development forces of the private sector. Without all of these, and more, we will not succeed.

Susana Frazao Pinheiro, Health Care and Life Sciences Education, United Kingdom

University College London, where I am an assistant professor of education in the School of Management, has spearheaded initiatives to create innovative programs with the Medical and Life Sciences Faculties across the university’s schools and colleges to train the next generation. In order to take promising pharmaceutical research and other innovations into the market, it is important for scientists to have an understanding of business and entrepreneurial skills, language and knowledge. This led us to develop a joint master’s-degree program between the UCL Schools of Pharmacy and of Management at UCL.

Another area that requires an interdisciplinary approach is the need to train future doctors in management skills. They need to learn how to assess the benefits and the intended and unintended consequences of potentially life-saving innovations.

In 2014, the School of Management developed an innovative module on Medical Policy, Innovation and Management that brings together experts from our school and other departments, to discuss and debate these topics with medical students. The general recognition that no discipline alone can address the vast dimension of the challenges that the medical profession faces is important, but so are the specific actions taken towards this.

The latter is what has led us to develop a Health Care and Life Sciences portfolio at the School of Management. We have also been contributing to other programs with modules on sustainable entrepreneurship, for example.

None of these tasks are easy. Academia has traditionally worked in silos; it takes perserverance and passion for change. But it also takes finding common ground, understanding people’s concerns and perspectives and listening more than speaking. Ultimately it requires accepting and embracing doubt and uncertainty. Interdisciplinary approaches allow for constant learning from other ways of looking at the world and from various perspectives. It is a proactive and dynamic process. For the efforts to be sustained, it is also essential that lessons are shared and clearly communicated to technical and non-technical audiences.

None of these tasks are easy. Academia has traditionally worked in silos; it takes perserverance and passion for change. But it also takes finding common ground.

Media, universities, governments and other sectors can play a role in leading to a better understanding of science by clarifying and conveying often complex concepts in ways that can be understood by a broader audience. This will ultimately lead to greater public engagement with science. The Covid-19 pandemic has emphasized the importance of evidence and science-based policy making, and public support for that.

Lian Otay, gynecologist, Jordan, and Nancy Hakooz, pharamogloist, Jordan

The need for interdisciplinary cooperation across health services has been evident in several ways during Jordan’s recent Covid-19 lockdown.

For a period of weeks, the lockdown was total. No cars or people were allowed on the streets, and people had to rely on the civil defense emergency services if they needed urgent medical care.

At first, emergency rooms and hospitals were overwhelmed with the large number of patients taken there by civil defense workers. To overcome this problem a physician was assigned to the civil defense team, patients were evaluated and treated at home, when possible, and only the most serious of cases were taken to hospitals.

Interdisciplinary teamwork was also evident in the epidemiological investigation teams checking the spread of the novel coronavirus. The teams included well-trained physicians, pharmacists and nurses who had to work together to investigate the pandemics’ hot spots. Other teams collaborated on tasks like getting medicine to patients with chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension who could not get to hospitals. A physician went out with the delivery team to make sure that the patients were getting the counseling they need regarding their medication.

During these challenging times, the health workers from all disciplines—physicians, nurses, pharmacists and dentists—had to work together to meet patients’ critical health care emergencies.

During these challenging times, the health workers from all disciplines—physicians, nurses, pharmacists and dentists—had to work together to meet patients’ critical health care emergencies.

This highlights the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration; if students from health faculties learn how to interact and communicate with each other through hypothetical scenarios in their early training, they will be better prepared to work together smoothly during real crises like the Covid-19 pandemic.

The concept of interdisciplinary collaboration should be introduced not only among similar disciplines like medicine, pharmacy and other health related specialties, but also on a wider range of disciplines like information technology, social sciences, policy management and other disiciplines.

Reem N. Bsaiso, Knowledge Economy Consultant, International

Interdisciplinary policy making comes into play as countries deal with the hard questions of how to build a knowledge-based economy, in which more than 50 percent of GDP comes from knowledge.

According to one model, from the World Bank, in order to build a successful knowledge economy, a country needs to focus on four major pillars: (1) A sound socio-economic regime, with transparency and accountability, (2) education, (3) innovation that incorporates science and technology to increase commercialization while protecting intellectual property rights, and (4) an updated information and communications technology infrastructure.

According to this model and others, a country building a knowledge economy on these four pillars would steer itself towards economic growth and job creation. Such a policy would enhance all environmental sectors, especially educational outcomes.

The intra- and inter-disciplinary approach on the level of national sectors emanates mainly from a shared sound socio-economic regime, fostering accountability, transparency and rule of law. Science alone cannot achieve economic growth that leads to prosperity and world peace without working hand-in-hand with the other pillars.

Rana Dajani, molecular biologist, Jordan

From my own personal perspective, some of the intrinsic support needed to boost this knowledge-economy model in Jordan and other developing countries would be heightened by supporting ease of opening new businesses and protecting intellectual property rights, especially in connection to electronic services, products and knowledge.

As science advances, humans increasingly benefit from new technologies and innovations. But sadly, as technologies advance, so do cybercrimes, which underlines the importance of a judicial system that understands cybercrime and the value of intellectual property on the Internet.

Until recently, information and communications technology infrastructure was looked on as a luxury in many parts of the world. The Covid-19 pandemic has created another reality. Not only have governments adopted the use of digital technologies to confront the pandemic and address a wide range of pandemic-related issues, but they have also supported the survival and continuity of vital sectors in our lives, namely education, which suddenly took advantage of whatever infrastructure it had to reach billions of students stranded in their homes.

Until recently, information and communications technology infrastructure was looked on as a luxury in many parts of the world. The Covid-19 pandemic has created another reality.

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Other sectors also turned to online solutions. Home-based work increased and real-life meetings and forums turned to online teleconferences, saving millions on transport and saving the planet from tons of pollution. Technology has indeed proven its worth in running affairs when almost all physical mobility stopped. The situation has provided an eye-opening motivation to boost information and communications technology infrastructure to serve humanity.


Our greatest challenges are complex; they include economic inequality, disease and health-care inequities, climate change, the loss of land available for agriculture, the waste of water and other development-related issues. Decades of research and practice have led to the realization that solving complex problems requires integrating the natural and social sciences.

But despite growing awareness for the need to break down disciplinary barriers, true interdisciplinary efforts remain elusive. A sustained effort is required to come up with new and transformative interdisciplinary sciences.

Interdisciplinary actions mean diversity not only in disciplines of study, but in variety of cultures and perspectives. To sow the seeds of this diversity we need to create teams who can work together and build equal partnerships. In the developing world, this includes engaging with scientists in the diaspora and establishing mentoring networks to benefit all populations and to carry these concepts over to next generations. The Covid-19 pandemic has further emphasized the urgency of building these bridges through forward-looking and collaborative interdisciplinary research.

Rana Dajani is a professor of molecular cell biology at the Hashemite University, in Jordan, and a visiting professor at the Jepson School of Leadership at the University of Richmond, in the United States. She is also president of the Society for the Advancement of Science and Technology in the Arab World.

Contributing authors include Abeer Al Bawab, University of Jordan; Sally Jordan, the Open University, England; Ganmaa Davaasambuu, Mongolia and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, United States; Nancy Hakooz, University of Jordan; Reem N. Bsaiso, Global Thinkers Forum; Lian Otay, gynecology, Jordan; and Susana Frazao Pinheiro, University College London.


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