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Interdisciplinarity: ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts’

The way ahead happens faster when different perspectives join forces

Professor Jackie Hodgson, Deputy Pro-Vice Chancellor (Research), Warwick

In a world of growing complexity and interconnectivity, interdisciplinarity is an approach that brings together multiple disciplines to challenge how we understand some of the most pressing issues around us and to deliver real world impact.

By looking at things in new ways, we can develop tools and approaches that are more easily applied to the world as it is – not necessarily as we would like it to be.

In drawing on the collective knowledge and experience of a variety of fields – whether different research disciplines, industry, the creative sector, or government – the impact we achieve can be more effective and far reaching.

Interdisciplinarity does not start and end with academia, of course. To deliver real-world impact through research, we know that we need to take a multi-faceted approach. Our research needs to be deliverable in the real world.

At the University of Warwick, our challenge-led programme of 10 Global Research Priorities (GRPs) brings together multiple fields of research, working with external partners from the international to the local, to address common global problems.

The current challenges we face around food and energy security, sustainability, or the Covid-19 pandemic, are most effectively addressed through collaborative and interdisciplinary working. In short, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts when it comes to the complexity of the real-world issues currently facing us.

Our Institute of Advanced Study supports postdoctoral researchers and visiting fellows across all disciplines, providing an international and interdisciplinary environment within which to advance new, innovative research ideas.

Through our doctoral training programmes and international partnerships with Monash and across Europe, we also promote the co-supervision of doctoral researchers across different disciplines, equipping them with the interdisciplinary expertise needed to develop the pathbreaking work of the future.

City of Culture has provided us with a great opportunity to collaborate with local organisations and communities, co-creating research and developing new partnerships that will last beyond the City of Culture year. Through Coventry Creates, and Getting Creative with Sustainability, our researchers are working with artists and creatives as well as local government and organisations, to explore issues through a new lens, and to find new ways of working towards a more sustainable world.

Alongside academic departments, Warwick is also home to an array of cross-faculty centres and institutes working on areas ranging from sustainable development, to policing, gender, global health, factors shaping the global economy, the science of cities and complexity science.

Human-data interaction and visualisation researchers in the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies, for example, are working with epidemiologists, to develop better ways of developing contact tracing networks and communicating these in ways that make sense to policymakers and to the public.

By adopting a more human-centred approach, they hope to overcome the deficiencies in current data science tools in mapping and sharing this information.

However, working in interdisciplinary ways is not an easy task. To be successful, researchers must be able to build long-term relationships with each other. Often, researchers – even those working in similar fields – can speak very different languages when looking at common topics, attribute different meanings to the same words and concepts, or simply approach the issue from a very different disciplinary angle.

Political scientists might focus on the geopolitics of security, for example, while lawyers might be more concerned with police powers or breaches of international human rights protections. Warwick is a founding member of the Turing Institute and here too, we see computer scientists developing the tools of AI, but also researchers in philosophy interrogating the ethics of data collection and use.

Interdisciplinarity does not start and end with academia, of course. To deliver real-world impact through research, we know that we need to take a multi-faceted approach. Our research needs to be deliverable in the real world.

This means working with external partners. For example, our work on autonomous vehicles has included close collaboration with car makers, technology providers, and government. By doing so, our research becomes more impactful by understanding the challenges and barriers to its application so they can be addressed up front.

There is no doubt that collaboration, partnerships, and cross-discipline teamwork at an early stage leads to different and often better outcomes. More importantly, an interdisciplinary approach will deliver better real-world results. By pioneering this approach, the University of Warwick can signal the way ahead and a more impactful approach to problem solving.

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