Posted by: Chris | 30/08/2010

Interdisciplinary Research – Why is it so Difficult?

About ten years ago I gave a talk at a meeting of the Max Planck Society on how IBM Research works, how we organize and measure ourselves, how we pick research topics to work on. I closed the talk by stating that much of the future of research would be in combining many skills and work in interdisciplinary teams. When I look at how we work today, I have to admit this vision did not yet fully materialize.

When I look though at the big challenges mankind faces, be it dealing with climate change, with resources becoming scarcer, feeding the quickly growing population of our planet, dealing with a quickly ageing society and its healthcare challenges, having enough energy available to allow us to live the way we have become accustomed to, I find that the only way to approach any one of these very interrelated challenges lies in the collaboration of engineers and scientists of many different professions.

Take for example, a project the Zurich lab is involved in called EDISON. Here we work with partners, including DONG Energy, Oestkraft, Technical University of Denmark, Siemens, Eurisco and the Danish Energy Association  to develop an intelligent infrastructure that will make possible the large scale adoption of electric vehicles powered by sustainable energy.  The concept is simple, when less wind power is available (either because Mother Nature isn’t producing any or a storm causing disconnects), vehicle charging is automatically adjusted down to the available amount of green energy – and in the extreme case  they plug back-in, but instead of charging, the vehicles give energy back to the grid – creating a balance of supply with demand. (video)

In this project we have electrical engineers, computer scientists, economists, and applied mathematicians collaborating to find a solution anywhere from a viable business model down to knowing how much a car’s battery can be discharged without the driver/user/owner being adversely impacted.

Interdisciplinary research makes EDISON possible. Image courtesy of Dansk Energi

Clearly no single discipline could solve this challenge alone, yet it appears extremely difficult to assemble world-class teams to work on these problems. There are concerns that the work is too applied, it is too focused on solving a particular problem, cannot be generalized enough and – there are no conferences where the results of the work could be presented.

While I understand all these concerns, I believe as scientists and engineers we have the obligation to demonstrate that interdisciplinary work is where we can have the most impact on our society and the planet itself.

I wonder what you think the inhibitors are and how we can overcome these to apply ourselves to what really matters for our and our children’s future?

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Responses

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by IBMResearch and Luca Perugini, IBM UR India. IBM UR India said: IBM's Zurich Lab director asks: Interdisciplinary Research – Why is it so Difficult?… http://fb.me/HJH6eZaw […]

  2. I think the major contributor to the difficulty in doing cross-disciplinary research is language. Each discipline uses different language to explain its concepts, and much of the initial grinding away in such a project is due to the need to translate concepts between different practitioners.

    • Language is definitely an issue as much as culture. I remember a project of some years ago, where the physicist claimed the problem was solved whereas the electrical engineer said the work only starts now 🙂

  3. Matthias,

    I agree that IBM research management system encourages researchers to work on inter-disciplinary work.
    We, researchers, need to work on not only value creation, but also new knowledge creation. The combination of Mode 2 and Mode 1 is required for us, working with various kinds of professionals, and practitioners.

  4. I believe for such seniors …. as already pointed out…. we can have people who have quite better experience of working with intelligentsia of different domains, cultures as well as (if possible… ) different languages….
    It does hamper initially if the languages of 2 closely working individuals are quite different…..

  5. I think interdiscplinary work has less to do with language adn a lot more to do with culture. Which country started the Edison initiative? Denmark.
    It has the following typical business culture characteristics (from Gerd Hofstede’s website ITM):

    •Low power distance, means employees typically have control and influence over their own work situation.
    •A tendency towards the individualistic means that each individual is free to pursue their own happiness, but is still connected to the group.
    •A feminine culture means that people care about each other.
    •High tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity.

    Now run a comparison between your country and Denmark at Geerd’s website:
    http://www.geert-hofstede.com/hofstede_dimensions.php

  6. Matthias,

    Thank you for writing clearly on a topic of importance beyond the technical. I too have found that many are very parochial in their viewpoints, often only considering how their particular patch will be affected by one choice or another. Conferences and journals are only the tip of the iceberg.

    The larger problem is often mismatched incentives. What appears optimal for the individual (or team/department) is not necessarily optimal (or even beneficial) when examined from a larger perspective. The challenge is the none other than “the greater good”.

    When making architectural or technical decisions, I always try to look at problems holistically, looking at the entire ecosystem. I often encounter parochialism of one form or another. At times, the comments in my blog, Ruminations (http://www.rlgsc.com/blog/ruminations.html) examine decisions and issues where what seems good from one perspective is dangerous from another. Most recently, I took issue with some of the design decisions around the candidate WebSocket protocol specification as re-creating problems that have long been a burden on the networking community.

    Once again, thank you for taking the time to comment on this phenomenon.


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