Opportunities for stimulating interdisciplinarity on Canadian Campuses

INTEG 375 – Philosophy of Interdisciplinarity

“Interdisciplinary” is a popular buzzword in academia and industry today. Universities all seem to feature MMIT terms in their marketing packages: Transdisciplinary, Interdisciplinary and Multidisciplinary in particular. But beyond the marketing purposes of using these flashy terms as synonymous for  “innovation”, what are the real implications of these strategies for knowledge generation and problem solving, and why should we place importance on them? If these practices promise so much benefit, how can we make sure that they are implemented beyond being marketing buzzwords? Most importantly, how might funding for MMIT be best directed and what kind of projects will best achieve MMIT outcomes? Interdisciplinarity is an essential knowledge generation and problem-solving tool that complements traditional disciplinary approaches.  It is a high risk, but high reward field that should be marketed and approached in implementation as such. This paper will discuss ideas for directing government and private contributions to produce high impact projects for encouraging long term and meaningful interdisciplinary capacity on Canada’s university campuses.

For the purposes of this paper, interdisciplinarity refers to the Multi- Inter- and Trans- prefixes of MMIT (Mono, Multi, Inter, Trans) scale. Multi-, Inter- and Trans- approaches share a common trait of being teams with diverse membership that operate in an open and flexible system (Klein). They are opposite to Monodisciplinarity, seen as the current status quo and the traditional approach to problem solving, whose team membership is not diverse and which operates in a closed and highly directed system. Multidisciplinary teams are more diverse and open in terms of their team make up and methods, but perhaps not as much as transdisciplinary teams. Interdisciplinary teams may lie somewhere in between. The differences are fuzzy, and the task of differentiating them is difficult, and the approach is usually chosen based on the type of question being asked.  But the common intention of all of these types of approaches is an integrated and holistic approach to producing knowledge and solving problems. The types of settings they emerge from are therefore very similar, and therefore for the purposes of this paper, referring to them under the umbrella term of interdisciplinarity will be sufficient.

Interdisciplinarity is often seen as an answer for dealing with the huge amount of complexity that exists in our civilization and our knowledge of the world. It is a method of integrating existing knowledge and building bridges between traditional disciplinary silos, and solving problems or discovering new solutions that exist between these silos. (Leavy) Importantly, it is a pragmatic approach of using whatever methods available for solving a problem, instead of only looking at a problem through a singular disciplinary lens (Leavy).  Interdisciplinarity by definition requires a collaborative approach, involving teams or experts from a variety of different disciplines. These teams are diverse, they can involve members from a broad or narrow assortment of fields in terms of how unique the team members are from each other (Klein). It creates a “hybrid community” that does not correspond to traditional distinctions of research modes and social sectors like those between academia and industry (Klein).

Because of the unique meshing of team members and approaches, interdisciplinarity requires some relatively unique conditions in order to be successful. Klein deals with these conditions in his paper Interdisciplinary Teamwork: The Dynamics of Collaboration and Integration. Intedisciplinarity requires an institutional climate and openness of structures that allows for researchers to break out of traditional molds. The problems that interdisciplinarity approaches may be open and closed in terms of their definition, but they must be framed in such a way that a variety of different disciplines CAN approach them.  Teams must include leadership that can foster a creative and integrative environment and manage different perspectives and conflict that can arise from it, and ensure that the approach does not lean too heavily to one practitioners disciplinary approach. Teams must not really too heavily on status else they may settle on too strongly a disciplinary approach. They must also be able to find or create a common language in order to understand each other and collaborate effectively. And overall, team members must be open and flexible to exploring new perspectives, and show a desire to integrate knowledge.  (Blackwell)

With so many conditions for success, Interdisciplinarity is a unique and challenging endeavour. There are numerous difficulties with it, particularly in terms of evaluation (Leavy). Even given what we know about the creation of conditions for interdisciplinarity, how can we assess that its outcomes are successful? Why should we divert resources from traditional, proven methods of research and problem solving towards something that is often misunderstood and difficult to pin down? When we are designing interdisciplinary projects and putting together teams, how can we know that they will be successful? Some of the assessment criteria that Leavy suggests in Evaluation Strategies and the Future of Transdisciplinarity seem relatively easy to assess and produce. These are concepts like the thoroughness of the project in the knowledge it produces, expliciteness in terms of the cognizance towards different disciplinary approaches and usefulness in terms of how practical and meaningful it is. But the evaluation concepts like holism and synergy, as well as congruence in reference to how well integrated the projects are and how they integrate perspectives is harder to pin down. (Leavy) In a world focused on quantitative outcomes, it is difficult to emphasize the importance of meaningful integration and improvement of researchers involved.

If interdisciplinarity is hard to assess and difficult to pin down as a concept for many, what worth does it have? I believe that though difficult to design and measure with our current tools, interdisciplinarity has transformative benefits which are well worth the structural changes and funding that would be required for it to thrive. The UK based National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts released a comprehensive paper called Creating Value across Boundaries that succinctly addresses the top four benefits of interdiscliplinarity. Interdisciplinary innovation can produce transformative opportunities for commercial exploitation or the ability to create or improve products or services. It creates social value by holistically approaching social or health related problems. It emphasizes novel outcome and approaches with curiosity-driven blue-sky research of its unique approach. And finally, interdisciplinarity forwards problem-solving and applied research by creating new approaches for unsolved but identified complex research. (Blackwell et al.) Basically, interdisciplinarity is an opportunity to go a step further in ambition for knowledge and innovation than what is offered by traditional approaches. It is a tool for solving multi-faceted problems and launching inquiries that exist between the traditional categories of knowledge that we have identified. In a world which is becoming ever more complexity due to the depth and breadth of our knowledge about it and the because of the systems we continue to produce, interdisciplinarity is essential for creating next generation innovations.             Interdisciplinarity is not a replacement for traditional disciplinary approaches but a complement. As an integrative approach it requires the expertise and definition of traditional disciplines like math or psychology. But it exists to solve problems like climate change or an explanation of consciousness that simply fall beyond the scope of any one discipline. It still requires advanced disciplinary knowledge. It is therefore important to emphasize that not every aspect of the university needs to be transitioned to become interdisciplinary, but there must be a universal awareness and openness in order to reap the benefits of interdisciplinarity.

I have synthesized two key elements for interdisciplinarity: Serendipity and Necessity. There is a vast amount of literature on what interdisciplinarity is, what conditions it requires to succeed, and what benefits arise from it. Although there is a focus on what barriers there are to interdisciplinarity, there is now doubt that interdisciplinary teams and cultures exist. This was made evident by Nancy Tuana’s visit to INTEG 375 in Winter 2013. She discussed the successes of her interdisciplinary Climate Change team at Penn State, in particular how it took a number of years for the team to learn to work together (Tuana). The success of her team on bringing a discussion of Gender into Climate Change has evidenced how an interdisciplinary approach can produce novel knowledge, a clear benefit. But learning how to make a team interdisciplinary takes time and funding. For Tuana it was meeting the right climate scientist to collaborate with, who was open minded enough to make the project work. She said that the right kind of collaborator is one who you could, in Nancy’s words, “fly from L.A. to Sydney with and be able to talk the whole way” in terms of social connection. It seems that along with a meshing of personality, collaborators must also jointly believe strongly in the necessity of work they are doing. (Tuana) The element of luck of researchers from different fields finding each other and meshing well with each other seems to be the work of serendipitous luck. That they stay and work together effectively on joint projects that require a lot of energy is a result of their belief in the necessity or their joint work and it’s benefits. Because of the time commitment of interdisciplinary projects and difficulty of satisfying both the personal conditions of serendipity and necessity, it is most certain that interdisciplinarity is a higher risk activity that traditional research. But as demonstrated, it can reap much higher rewards.

We should think of interdisciplinarity as a type of investment. If we can educate practitioners in the best practices of it in order to make interdisciplinarity more efficient, foster an environment that favours serendipity and encourages belief in necessity, we can reduce the risk of interdisciplinarity and make the investment pay off even more. We must encourage funding towards interdisciplinary pursuits by adopting a philosophy that embraces the serendipitous elements of good interdisciplinarity and the necessity of undertaking this method.

             Funding is a key issue for undertaking any project, interdisciplinarity requires funding from both the public and private sector. Potential funders need to be identified and persuaded to contribute their money to this cause. (Marsden) It is important that marketing tactics for this effort are relevant and directed. As funding is essential to even begin discussing potential project ideas, I will discuss a number of strategies for marketing fundraising for interdisciplinarity. These are: avoiding or elaborating on buzzwords, emphasizing the long term, high risk and high reward nature of interdisciplinarity, and opening up specific opportunities to fund interdisciplinarity.

As has been discussed, interdisciplinarity and its associated terms of Multi-, Inter-, and Trans- are used in a widespread way to market various university programs and endeavours. Typically, it seems that these terms are used as synonymous to innovation and collaboration, and don’t necessarily carry a unique weight. It is important that interdisciplinarity is understood as distinct and complementary from those concepts in order for people to see its unique value and champion it as a method, not just a flashy marketing idea. A greater emphasis by universities and their marketing departments must be put on giving depth to the descriptions of interdisciplinarity. This involves more education of what interdisciplinarity is, and an emphasis on not using terms like interdisciplinarity as synonymous for buzzwords like ‘innovation’.

I think that making it clear that funding for interdisciplinary endeavours and projects is not only a high reward cause, but one that is higher risk and often has a longer time frame for implementation would be worthwhile. Right now, as related to the buzzword issue, it often seems like interdisciplinarity is an instant magic bullet. There needs to be more emphasis on the truth that it is a highly complex and challenging effort that takes time. This will set expectations to be more realistic and reasonable, and make funders approach interdisciplinarity in a way that might be more aligned to successful implementations. It is important that interdisciplinary pursuits receive long term funding with sights set on high profile innovation that makes the time worthwhile, instead of short term funding that simply does not support the unique needs of interdisciplinary projects.

Finally, there needs to be explicit opportunities for funders to contribute to interdisciplinarity specifically. This will mean launching funding drives that look to support interdisciplinary elements at universities, and designing planned giving and sponsorship opportunities for individual, public and corporate donors. If universities are serious about developing interdisciplinary capacity, they need attract funding for it specifically using rhetoric about interdisciplinarity that goes deeper than buzzwords. I believe that if people are made aware of specific opportunities to give, there will be much more funding available.

If we are able to improve awareness and build funding support, there will be much more opportunity for interdisciplinarity. But even given these improvements in the funding situation, there will always be scarcity. I have therefore identified a number of specific ideas for high impact projects that will enhance interdisciplinary capacity on campuses. The levels of interdisciplinary funding described in The Institute for The Study of Science Technology and Innovation’s A Short Guide for Funders of Interdisciplinary Research provide a good framework for where funding can be directed. These levels for projects supporting interdisciplinarity, as I interpret them, are the university-wide scale, the program scale, the project scale, and the individual scale. These ideas are meant, alongside increased funding, to support the concepts of serendipity and necessity for interdisciplinarity research and encourage the conditions for success. I believe that these can best be achieved at a large, university wide scale and so the emphasis is mainly on this level.

            At the University scale, it is important to create a culture where interdisciplinarity is seen as important and where there are plenty of opportunities for experts from different disciplines to interact and meet. This will increase the belief in the necessity for interdisciplinary work and the chance for serendipitous relationships to be created. The design of campuses will facilitate the latter, we need to look at campuses as a kind of trading zone for ideas from different areas (Collins & Evans). If different disciplines can interact organically based simply on their proximity, there could be a better chance for interdisciplinary culture and projects emerging organically (Harris). This will mean building campuses to a higher density, and not separating different disciplines as far away from each other. It means creating plenty of common working spaces and meeting spaces for people from different disciplines to interact. Nurturing interdisciplinarity by fundamentally encouraging one of its core traits, interaction, at this scale will make significant impacts. Universities in future should be planned for favouring diverse interaction.

Universities should communicate their emphasis on interdisciplinarity in ways discussed in this paper, explicitly encouraging it and educating members of the university to a greater degree about it. One way of doing this may be to centralize some interdisciplinary pursuits in an interdisciplinary faculty that represents and lobbies for interdisciplinarity across campuses. This faculty would hold interdisciplines, knowledge bridging programs, would lobby for specific efforts to increase interdisciplinarity and market it meaningful. I see one overarching problem for interdisciplinarity is its lack of a central voice and proponent.

Another thing that could be implemented campus wide through a central interdisciplinary faculty would be to further develop evaluation practices for interdisciplinarity, identify successful interdisciplinary leaders and to disperse funding in non-traditional ways (Blackwell). Interdisciplinarity values openness and a sharing of knowledge and a holistic approach. Evaluation needs to reflect that, and so the development of human resources and metrics that can evaluate interdisciplinary projects in their context and fairly compare them to other projects would be valuable. A unique type of integrative leader is required for interdisciplinarity, and a central interdisciplinary faculty would be able to train and develop those leaders from all other faculties. An interdisciplinary faculty might also be able to set up more innovative funding models within the university that favour the longer term cycle of interdisciplinary projects (Blackwell).

One idea for encouraging interdisciplinarity on a campus would be to organize universities not only along faculties, but also central questions. A university could develop a set of interdisciplinary research questions and areas of inquiry, like how to deal with a specific aspect of climate change or how to implement new quantum computing technologies, and in a way set goals for the knowledge production at the universities. Similar to how John F. Kennedy set a goal for landing a man on the moon and moved an entire society to contribute to that goal, a university could open encourage all members to explicitly and openly look at solving open, interdisciplinary questions.

            There should continue to be support for the development of interdisciplinary programs of all types. This is focused activity that will encourage the development of interdisciplinary methods and sensibilities, and will grow capacity accordingly. Even in this growth, it must be clear that interdiscplinarity is truly a complement to traditional disciplinarity and not a replacement. It is a method of networking knowledge and requires disciplinary knowledge to prosper; interdisciplinary programs need to continue to look outward to enhancing the knowledge of the university rather than serving their own interests. (Kleinberg)

Universities may be able to further enhance the possibilities for serendipity and the feeling of necessity in regards to interdisciplinarity by creating more residence opportunities for interdisciplinary interactions. Life long friendships are formed in university residences, and these have the opportunity to be excellent working relationships as well. If we can make the first residence as diverse as possible in terms of disciplinary exposure, we might be able to encourage more interdisciplinary culture systemically. In my experience at St. Paul’s Residence at the University of Waterloo, I met virtually no Engineering, Math, Arts or Health Sciences students. This has reduced my exposure to interacting and working with people from these areas of the universities. Greater exposure to people from all areas of the university early on in residence will increase opportunities for collaboration with a diversity of researchers later on, and will encourage university members to consider their broader communities.

Interdisciplinarity is a sophisticated tool for connecting disciplinary knowledge to develop brand new perspectives and solve challenging problems. It is an important method to embrace in a complex world, and as primary research institutions, universities need to be on the forefront of implementing interdisciplinarity. To encourage funding, universities need to reflect more on the meaning of interdisciplinarity and not approach it simply as a concept synonymous to innovation in order to attract the right kinds of funding. Efforts for encouraging interdisciplinarity need to be directed at creating more opportunities and a climate for serendipity in interactions between diverse researchers, and to encourage a feeling in researchers that interdisciplinarity is a necessity. Interdisciplinarity must be approached explicitly as a complement to disciplines. Interdisciplinarity is long term and cultural, projects to build capacity should be focused on the larger picture of the university scale.

Word Count:  3123

Works Cited

Collins, H., R. Evans, and M. Gorman. “Trading Zones and Interactional Expertise.”Studies In History and Philosophy of Science Part A 38.4 (2007): 657-66. PDF.


Blackwell, Alan, and et al. Creating Value across Boundaries: Maximizing the Return from Interdisciplinary Innovation. Rep. UK Based National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, May 2010. Web. Apr. 2013. <http://www.nesta.org.uk/library/documents/creating_value_across_boundaries_may10.pdf&gt;.


Harris, Michael, and Karri Holley. “Constructing the Interdisciplinary Ivory Tower.”Society for College and University Planning (2008): n. pag. Academia.edu. Web. Apr. 2013. <http://www.academia.edu/182628/Constructing_the_interdisciplinary_ivory_tower_Planning_for_interdisciplinary_spaces_on_the_university_campus&gt;.


Klein, Julie Thompson, et al. “Interdisciplinary Teamwork: The Dynamics of Collaboration and Integration.” Interdisciplinary

Collaboration: An Emerging Cognitive Science. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2005. N. pag. PDF.


Kleinberg, Ethan. “Interdisciplinary Studies.” Liberal Education. Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2008. Web. Apr. 2013. <http://wesscholar.wesleyan.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1021&context=div2facpubs&gt;.


Leavy, Patricia. “Evaluation Strategies and the Future of Transdisciplinarity.” Essentials of Transdisciplinary Research (2011): n. pag. PDF.


Marsden, Wendy, and Et Al. A Short Guide for Funders of Interdisciplinary Research. Rep. The Institute for The Study of Science Technology and Innovation, Mar. 2011. Web. Apr. 2013. <http://www.genomicsnetwork.ac.uk/media/ISSTI%20ID%20Briefing%20Note%208%20Funders.pdf&gt;.


Tuana, Nancy. “Interdisciplinary Experience for INTEG 375.” INTEG 375. University of Waterloo. 1 Feb. 2013. Lecture.






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