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"Inreach" and the Interdisciplinary Executive Scientist: The missing puzzle pieces for effective interdisciplinary research

It is widely agreed and readily apparent that every wicked human and environmental health challenge facing us today will require us to harness interdisciplinary expertise. “Wicked problems”, a term borrowed from social planning, are those that are difficult or seemingly impossible to solve because of the unknowable, contradictory and ever-shifting requirements of any potential solution. They include such grand challenges as energy generation, storage, and transmission; climate change; chemical pollution; and synthetic biology in agriculture – as well as their complex interactions on disease pathways and environmental damage.

Research and ultimately decision-making about trade-offs in developing and applying technologies to meet this wide array of problems requires cutting edge expertise across a broad array of sectors and disciplines. For the examples mentioned above, materials scientists, chemists, environmental engineers, biologists, medical doctors, bioengineers, geoscientists, ecologists, social scientists, lawyers and data scientists from academia, government, industry, non-governmental organizations, and members of the public all must be engaged.

The shared understanding that we need broad teams of experts is visible in conference rosters, agency missions, and in the funding calls generated by government and private institutions, which over the past ten years have increasingly stressed the importance of interdisciplinary approaches. Many centers have been funded with the express design of bringing together interdisciplinary and inter-sectoral teams to apply their collective expertise to research on these complex topics.

We've all likely nodded along as we’ve viewed box and arrow diagrams showing that knowledge from one area of expertise should flow into the next, and how feedback loops between these boxes will be critical to research outcomes (a generic representative example of such a diagram is presented here). Teams have been assembled with preeminent experts to fill these important boxes, bringing to bear their deep understanding of each of their areas of expertise, typically along with a willingness to collaborate with experts in other disciplines or fields assembled to address whatever problem the team is tasked with.

Organization Chart

What we have not effectively addressed yet are the arrows (information flows) in these diagrams. No one disagrees that information should and must flow among experts from a variety of disciplines and fields, in order to best address real-world scientific challenges, but how this should happen remains murky. The implicit assumption has been that if we gather together the experts within the "boxes", with some overall guidance, the arrows will take care of themselves. Thus far, the arrows (or information flows) critical to these interdisciplinary endeavors have been largely manifested in the form of ad-hoc communication, joint meetings, or joint publications.

I assert that the way forward in enabling truly effective interdisciplinary research efforts is to change fundamentally the way we interpret the arrows, and to interpret them as representing the work of individuals with specialized expertise, just like we interpret the boxes. The need for outreach is understood to translate findings from within organizations and projects outward. It is time to recognize an analogous need for "inreach", to translate and transmit information between the moving pieces within organizations and projects. To implement this change in practice, a new career path is needed: that of the Interdisciplinary Executive Scientist.

The Interdisciplinary Executive Scientist must possess specialized project management skills, but more importantly must understand the interdisciplinary science approach, including the ways that information is shared and applied. It is also critical that the Interdisciplinary Executive Scientist has specific fluency in the type of wicked problem being addressed, along with a deep understanding of fundamentals in at least one related area of the underlying science and an appreciation of the science from multiple disciplinary perspectives. We must acknowledge that inreach – knowledge transfer and feedback among disciplines and sectors – is in itself an independent and critical aspect of effective interdisciplinary team science, and further, that these information flows cannot be facilitated effectively by someone residing only within one box, no matter their competence.

A person who rises to the level of a leading expert in a field or discipline does so through rich understanding of the history and fundamentals of their area of expertise, immersion in contemporary developments through conference attendance and vigilant surveillance of the literature, and original contributions. These activities share time with teaching and mentoring, administration, policy writing, budgeting, personnel management and other professional activities. While experts who become involved in interdisciplinary endeavors are usually highly interested in the connections of their research with other fields, and dedicated to collaboration, their dance cards are simply too full to also orchestrate the information flows necessary for efficient and effective interdisciplinary research.

Communication of knowledge in the context of an interdisciplinary collaboration requires understanding what information from one collaborator is pertinent to others, when it is needed, and by whom. The job of inreach also requires knowing in exactly what form and what timescale the information is useful, and a view of what information is not already commonly understood. Implicit assumptions about what is known by all team members are often wrong, leading to the loss of both time and important knowledge content. Some of these inefficiencies are due to disciplinary culture or terminology; some are noted by the parties trying to communicate, but some go undetected.

The important work of combining disparate perspectives and knowledge sets and prioritizing integrated efforts also requires a specific focus on the issue-specific driving goals of the interdisciplinary endeavor at hand, which may differ from the focal points of any of the collaborators’ individual areas of expertise. It is simply too much to ask of individual collaborators both to be at the forefronts of their own fields and to possess a third-party objective view of how their own areas of expertise fit into a bigger picture created by all the disciplines that are contributing to integrated solutions.

Map slide

The most effective interdisciplinary integration can best be achieved if it is someone's job to achieve it. It is the Interdisciplinary Executive Scientist's vocation to amass expertise about what information is needed to cross-pollinate among fields and help enable decisions to be made.

I propose that the role of the Interdisciplinary Executive Scientist be developed as a defined vocation with a clear and rewarding career path, in order to attract talented scientists to this important work. Institutionalizing this inreach responsibility in a formalized role will both feed and benefit from the burgeoning reliance on Big Data and analytical sciences, which are critical underpinnings of efficient information sharing. The potential of data science to synthesize vast amounts of disparate information and discover important patterns has been realized in a number of fields (e.g., genomics) and is currently a topic of intense interest in other fields (e.g. nanoinformatics) eager to maximize discovery potential across a broad range of research initiatives. A class of researchers well-versed in linking together disparate areas of expertise and focused on important data hand-offs would be highly useful in advancing interdisciplinary data exchanges and synthesis.

For the past two years, my own role as Executive Director of the Center for the Environmental Implications of NanoTechnology (CEINT), has afforded me the opportunity to focus on inreach. CEINT is headquartered at Duke University and includes 6 other core universities (Carnegie Mellon University, Virginia Tech University, University of Kentucky, Stanford University, Howard University, and Baylor University) as well as an international network of collaborators.

At first, I undertook inreach activities at CEINT as a way of getting up to speed on what was needed for the successful renewal of our Center’s NSF and EPA funding and achievement of our mission. My background in risk assessment research had made me comfortable soliciting information from other related fields with which I was very familiar but could not claim expertise, so I initiated conversations with researchers across the center, and made presentations to cross-center groups to ensure I understood and could correctly convey their work. Over the course of these activities, I identified common threads that were not yet tied together across the center - for example, similar research questions or overlapping topics of interest.

To tie together these common threads, I convened standing small group meetings dedicated to developing crosstalk around these shared interests across multiple institutions and departments. I experimented with annual meeting formats that resulted in every researcher in the center being exposed to every area of expertise, while communicating the overall research framework into which everyone fits.

My efforts to clarify and translate our strategies and information hand-offs were met with a level of appreciation seldom experienced in the course of simply doing one’s job, and I was able to see that in addition to educating me, these inreach activities were adding value for my colleagues at CEINT.

I also noted that this executive work was taking most of my time and resulting in my amassing very mission-specific expertise in integrating knowledge and datasets, at the "expense" of publishing prolifically in my original area of expertise, environmental risk assessment. I have continued in this role, as I personally find the work rewarding and the value of these inreach activities to the center has been clear. New collaborations have been established across the Center and with external partners, and our data across the center are being collected and organized for integrated synthesis. In addition, researchers at all levels (students, post-docs and faculty) have commented that they feel more aware of how they fit into the big picture and can thus better initiate their own integrative efforts.

My experience has been possible because of a unique set of circumstances, including generous matching funding from Duke University to support staffing for our Center for the ten year duration of our federal funding, and the gifts of freedom, trust and support from our Center director. However, the need for interdisciplinary executive scientists performing the work of inreach to address wicked problems is decidedly not unique.

Dedicating oneself to understanding knowledge gaps among decision makers and the research that enables and supports such decisions, and to the translation of research among disciplines and sectors, must be elevated and institutionalized to attract talent, to establish methodologies, and to create an infrastructure to train people for this important role. These methodologies should be passed down formally in the form of university courses, perhaps first culminating in interdisciplinary certificates to be earned over the course of graduate study within established fields. Conferences should be utilized to share and improve interdisciplinary strategies, leveraging the knowledge gained through experience and sharing it with practitioners.

The translational aspect of interdisciplinary science, which is the motivator behind many of these complex endeavors, can be maximally supported by enabling and facilitating this specific class of knowledge transfer as an acknowledged career path rather than as a side job – a taxation on one’s "real" career within a narrow area of expertise. It is time for the Interdisciplinary Executive Scientist to step in and tackle inreach, taking responsibility for those arrows between the boxes of the interdisciplinary teams, helping weave the integrated solutions necessary to address our complex societal challenges.

About the Author

Christine Ogilvie Hendren, Ph.D., Executive Director and Research Scientist, Center for the Environmental Implications of NanoTechnology (CEINT), Duke University

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