Interdisciplinary research (IDR) is a mode of research by teams or individuals that integrates information, data, techniques, tools, perspectives, concepts, and/or theories from two or more disciplines or bodies of specialized knowledge to advance fundamental understanding or to solve problems whose solutions are beyond the scope of a single discipline or area of research practice.
Interdisciplinary research (IDR) can be one of the most productive and inspiring of human pursuits one that provides a format for conversations and connections that lead to new knowledge. As a mode of discovery and education, it has delivered much already and promises more a sustainable environment, healthier and more prosperous lives, new discoveries and technologies to inspire young minds, and a deeper understanding of our place in space and time.
The history of science from the time of the earliest scholarship abounds with examples of the integration of knowledge from many research fields. The pre-Socratic philosopher Anaximander brought together his knowledge of geology, paleontology, and biology to discern that living beings develop from simpler to more complex forms. In the age of the great scientific revolutions of 17th century Europe, its towering geniuses Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke, Edmond Halley, Robert Boyle, and others brought their curiosity to bear not only on subjects that would lead to basic discoveries that bear their names but also on every kind of interdisciplinary challenge, including military and mining questions.
In the 19th century, Louis Pasteur became a model interdisciplinarian, responding to practical questions about diseases and wine spoilage with surprising answers that laid the foundations of microbiology and immunology. Today, the proliferation of new understanding about the molecular and genetic underpinnings of life demonstrates the power of combining disciplinary
knowledge in interdisciplinary ways.
In recent decades, the growth of scientific and technical knowledge has prompted scientists, engineers, social scientists, and humanists to join in addressing complex problems that must be attacked simultaneously with deep knowledge from
different perspectives. Students show increasing enthusiasm about problems of global importance that have practical consequences, such as disease prevention, economic development, social inequality, and global climate change all of which can best be addressed through IDR. A glance across the research landscape reveals how many of today’s “hot topics” are interdisciplinary: nanotechnology, genomics and proteomics, bioinformatics, neuroscience, conflict, and terrorism. All those invite and even demand interdisciplinary participation. Similarly, many of the great research triumphs are products of interdisciplinary inquiry and collaboration: discovery of the structure of DNA, magnetic resonance imaging, the Manhattan Project, laser eye surgery, radar, human genome sequencing, the “green revolution,” and manned space flight. There can be no question about the productivity and effectiveness of research teams formed of partners with diverse expertise.
“We are not students of some subject matter, but students of problems. And problems may cut right across the borders of any subject matter or discipline.” – Karl Popper.
Reprinted from Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research, National Academies Press, 2005; a report authored by the Committee on Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research, and the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, committees of the National Research Council. Support for the project was provided by the W. M. Keck Foundation. Grateful acknowledgment is made to the National Academies Press, 500 Fifth St., N.W., Washington, D.C., 20001, for permission to use these excerpts.
1 Robert K. Merton’s classic Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth Century England describes the work of the remarkable “natural philosophers” whose reach spanned many of today’s disciplines.
2 Study of all the proteins encoded by an organism’s DNA.
3 An editorial in Science noted, “The time is upon us to recognize that the new frontier is the interface, wherever it remains
unexplored…. In the years to come, innovators will need to jettison the security of familiar tools, ideas, and specialties as they forge new partnerships.” Kafatos, F.C. and Eisner, T., “Unification in the Century of Biology.” Science, 303 (February 27):1257, 2004.
4 Popper, K. R. Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge. New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963, p. 88.