New AAAS Guide Provides Roadmap for Supporting Interdisciplinary Research and Education

Many of the important challenges facing science and society—from fighting disease to harnessing sustainable energy sources—require more than the efforts of researchers from a single discipline. Scientists from different disciplines need to collaborate and engage in interdisciplinary research to solve such complex issues.

“But addressing problems and training the next generation of problem solvers is based on the problems that you have—not based on the tools that you have at hand,” said Edward Derrick, chief program director of the AAAS Center of Science, Policy, and Society Programs. “So it is going to require the ability to bring different sets of tools, techniques, and perspectives to the task.”

To encourage these diverse collaborations, AAAS has produced a new guide: Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research and Education: A Practical Guide. Written in partnership with the University of Colorado Biofrontiers Institute, the guide provides a set of “best practices” for scholars, administrators, and funders who are starting, managing, and supporting interdisciplinary research and education programs.

The authors developed these guidelines following a March 2011 workshop entitled “Science on FIRE—Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research and Education,” which was organized by the Colorado Initiative in Molecular Biotechnology and AAAS. The workshop, led by Nobel laureate and University of Colorado professor Thomas Cech, brought together more than 150 multidisciplinary practitioners—educators, program managers, policy experts, and researchers from across the nation—to identify the keys to establishing successful interdisciplinary research programs.

“We hope that the lessons gleaned will help interdisciplinary programs achieve the prominence they need and deserve,” said AAAS CEO Alan Leshner,who also serves as the executive publisher of Science.

The report focuses on key areas of consideration for both single discipline and interdisciplinary research: how to secure and maintain funding; how to establish and motivate expert teams of researchers; and how to educate the next generation of researchers. The challenges facing interdisciplinary research programs in these areas are unique, however, and the guide suggests different approaches and solutions.

Throughout the report, the authors—Derrick, Holly J. Falk-Krzesinkski, Melanie R. Roberts and Steve Olsen—use examples of established interdisciplinary research to illustrate both the best practices and the common pitfalls that may arise. “Every project offers broader lessons,” Cech wrote in the guide’s introduction. “The workshop sought to distill these lessons into principles that anyone can use.”

The report cites the example of the University of Colorado-Boulder’s new Interdisciplinary Quantitative Biology (IQ Biology) Ph.D. program as one that tries to educate the students to become fluent in more than a single “discipline language.” In this program students take interdisciplinary, project-based courses and conduct research independent from a specific program in their first year. They then go on to gain disciplinary depth in their chosen Ph.D. degree program.

The guide also addresses other pertinent issues such as creating an interdisciplinary culture, measuring the outcomes of interdisciplinary research, and ensuring diversity in interdisciplinary research and education. Derrick hopes that its publication will be one step in a continued effort toward helping interdisciplinary research programs realize their full potential in solving critical scientific problems.

“One of the lessons learned is that one size does not fit all,” he said. “This is not the end of it all—meeting the challenge is an ongoing effort.”

Jane Palmer

11 September 2012