Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Growing Enterprise of Interdisciplinary Research

(H/T to Simoleon Sense (again). Munger would love this one


In the sciences, the era of interdisciplinary study has been delivering for some time. The past 50 years have seen researchers engaged in their own version of aisle reaching, extending a hand or a methodology or a graduate student across campus and, in some cases, across the globe, to advance some form of basic understanding. A recent National Academy of Sciences committee, charged with summarizing the state of scientific study across disciplines, reeled off an impressive list of achievements, from genome sequencing to neuroimaging to the Manhattan Project.

Psychologists have not been strangers to this trend. Rather, they have been in the vanguard, according to a paper published inScience (Wuchty, 2007). In the second half of the 20th century, the average size of a psychology research team increased 75 percent — the top rate of increase among social sciences.

As research teams have expanded, their composition has diversified. Economists and political scientists, in particular, have teamed with psychologists at a progressive rate, the Scienceauthors found. More importantly, the citation impact of these larger teams seems to have increased with their added size and breadth. This heightened influence holds true even when adjusting for the increase in self-citation that comes with a greater number of researchers per study.

New fields have already begun to emerge from these meetings of minds—neuroscience, political psychology, cognitive science, and evolutionary psychology, to name a handful. Such instances distinguish true interdisciplinary work from multi-disciplinary efforts, which, as APS Past President John Cacioppo pointed out in a previous Observer column, require "only that one share an established procedure with an investigator in another field." Ideally, interdisciplinary collaborations lead to more than a parlor game of pass the procedure. They don't just shift eyes onto the question at hand; they ask completely new questions. The goal here, it would seem, is not to reach across the aisle, but rather to eliminate it.