Barriers to interdisciplinary research

Barriers to interdisciplinary research

FROM OUR COLUMNISTS Research Barriers to Interdisciplinary Research INTERDISCIPLINARY, MULTIDISCIPLINARY, cross-disciplinary, transdisciplinary. For t...

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FROM OUR COLUMNISTS Research Barriers to Interdisciplinary Research INTERDISCIPLINARY, MULTIDISCIPLINARY, cross-disciplinary, transdisciplinary. For the past 20 years, these words have been used in requests for applications, program announcements, and research policy statements to encourage us to work together. “It’s the only way research will be performed in the future,” they tell us. “No single discipline can address the multiple issues involved in health and health care.” Although interdisciplinary research seems like a great idea, there are still at least three obstacles blocking the road: bad assumptions, bad manners, and bad policy. I recently went to a conference that was touted as a special interdisciplinary effort to understand a specific phenomenon that was of particular interest to a practice discipline. The speakers and the planners of the conference made several common, but mistaken, assumptions. First, it should not be assumed that everyone is equally capable of doing interdisciplinary work. The conference planners tended to invite speakers who did particularly interesting research. However, it was not clear that they had much interdisciplinary experience. It appeared that few of the speakers had actually thought about the concept that was the focus of the conference. Many of the speakers merely pushed their own agendas or research interests without regard for

KATHLEEN A. O’CONNELL, PHD, RN, FAAN Isabel Maitland Stewart Chair and Professor of Nursing Education Box 35 Teachers College Columbia University 525 W 120th St New York, NY 10027 Copyright © 2001 by W.B. Saunders Company 8755-7223/01/1704-0002$35.00/0 doi:10.1053/jpnu.2001.24858

the topic at hand or for the relevance of their work to the audience. Second, some of the speakers also made the common erroneous assumption that everyone knows what they know. This assumption leads to speaking in a language that is difficult for others outside their discipline to understand. Additional errors include the assumptions that people from other disciplines can do nothing with respect to the question at hand, and that they can do anything with respect to the question. The former leads to a lack of respect for the outsider, and the latter can lead to big misunderstandings. As a nurse-investigator who studies health behaviors, I have been called in to do “the psychosocial piece” of some research endeavor that my potential collaborators assumed would be simple, quick, and cheap. But I was equally naı¨ve when I once called on a pharmacologist to recommend a simple, quick, and cheap biochemical test to determine whether patients were taking their medications. (He recommended a questionnaire.) Bad assumptions often lead to bad manners. Namedropping is a particularly annoying one. Experts who assume that those from other disciplines have read the seminal works in their area and who say such things as, “the well-known work by. . .” or “Jones was right,” both lose their audience and undermine interdisciplinary spirit. Listening is an important skill in interdisciplinary efforts. At the conference I mentioned earlier, it was noteworthy to observe the behavior of some speakers when members of other disciplines questioned the relevance of their points during discussion sessions. Instead of listening, these speakers tended to dominate the discussions by incessantly repeating their points as if the audience did not hear them the first

Journal of Professional Nursing, Vol 17, No 4 (July–August), 2001: pp 153-154



time, and, as if the audience, who were themselves experts in the area, had nothing to contribute. The third barrier to interdisciplinary research is bad policy with respect to who gets the credit and the rewards for doing interdisciplinary research. Bad policy prevails at both federal and local levels. The National Institutes of Health and other federal and private agencies allow the name of only one principal investigator on research grants. This practice allows funding agencies to keep a more compact database at the expense of all coinvestigators. Only the name of the single principal investigator, not coprincipal investigators, coinvestigators, or other collaborators, is attached to the record of grants in available government data bases. For instance, you will look in vain on the federal Computer Retrieval of Information on Scientific Projects (CRISP) database for the names of major collaborators on the National Institute for Nursing Research (NINR) grants listed there. Such a policy makes it difficult to verify the collaborative efforts of investigators, or identify those who have experience in interdisciplinary work. This policy problem is often exacerbated at the local level. Internal news sources and


public relations efforts frequently highlight the principal investigator as the recipient of grant funds, often without acknowledging the interdisciplinary team that so impressed reviewers. Furthermore, it is frequently only the department of the principal investigator that gets access to indirect costs from grants. With such limelight and rewards accorded to principal investigators, what independent researcher would want to be a mere collaborator? People who are experienced at interdisciplinary work know that it is difficult and that they will frequently deal with unexpected assumptions and disparate values. I believe that nurses are especially good at interdisciplinary work because we do it from the time we enter the profession, constantly dealing with a plethora of disciplines and having to coordinate their efforts for the common good of patients. But few nurses would call this an easy task. As researchers, we need to perform the same service for the common good of the population. We need to teach our colleagues how to participate in interdisciplinary research, and we need to demand the credit that tough interdisciplinary efforts deserve.