Cross-disciplinary research opens minds

Thinking outside the box to solve stubborn problems takes courage and imagination, says ECU’s Dr Jun Wen. 

Evidence-based research is integral to academia, driving innovation and improving understanding while informing global policy. One area lauded by some and discouraged by others is cross-disciplinary research, specifically between the social and medical sciences. 

Dr Jun Wen

These domains are viewed as separate entities within the medical community. One may therefore wonder what good can come from blending them. 

Nevertheless, cross-disciplinary research has been a cornerstone of certain scholarly communities for decades. For instance, East China Normal University recently celebrated its 70th anniversary and has been a leader in cross-disciplinary research mixing branches of the social and medical sciences, including basic and applied sciences, engineering, physics, and economics. 

This merging of scientific fields has spawned research on green material manufacturing, gene-editing technologies, and mathematics students’ educational competency.  

Facilities such as these that emphasise cross-disciplinary research show the immense potential such work holds for knowledge and discovery. However, barriers continue to limit its implementation.

A recent article in Perspectives on Medical Education examined cross-disciplinary knowledge flow within medical education research and higher education. The authors found that medical education researchers use a narrower range of knowledge communities than those in higher education: 80% of the former group’s citations come from health and medical education journals, whereas the latter group cites only 36% of work from within their own domain, the remainder come from across the social sciences. 

These results suggest that experts in higher education converse with other academics from a range of communities, increasing the number of perspectives they encounter, and the insight brought into their field.

The most significant benefit of cross-disciplinary research – and the reason why many worldwide research powerhouses stress it – is that it enables knowledge exchange while sparking innovative responses to complex health challenges. The common phrase “thinking outside the box” happens as academics step outside the bounds of their respective disciplines to pull information from other scientific realms.

Yet obstacles persist. One major difficulty is the lack of evidence to guide the design and implementation of such research, which hampers collective action. 

Advances have been made to lessen these limitations: a 2020 review showed that cross-disciplinary research is best fostered by leadership and teamwork at the research team and institutional levels. The review also indicated that personal qualities, such as receptiveness to new ideas and the funder’s power and influence, further affect scholars’ abilities to perform this type of work. Moreover, challenges arise in affording academic researchers the opportunity to choose topics and directions while meeting the needs of those overseeing and funding their efforts. 

Knowledge is power. It makes research an asset and a potentially costly area, especially as research technologies expand. As in most situations involving money, there is usually substantial oversight concerning what has been completed to ensure that funding bodies’ needs are fulfilled and that the research is relevant to society and the economy. Yet these constraints can stunt academic freedom and even obstruct innovative discoveries.

Another barrier to academic freedom is universities’ and faculty members’ desire for research staff to publish within their own areas to enhance departmental recognition. This laser focus can dramatically limit scholars’ chances to study cross-disciplinary topics. Researchers may be similarly prevented from assuming novel stances. As such, facilities may generate more output on a specific topic, but it is unlikely to be as groundbreaking as cross-disciplinary research can potentially be. 

Cross-disciplinary research encourages creative solutions to age-old problems. However, urging professionals to stay within the confines of their discipline can restrict the answers available to them, reducing the probability of breakthroughs. 

As Stefan Hell explained in 2019, when scholars are not granted the freedom to choose their research subjects, they go into their research with already limited potential to make important discoveries—and if their methodological options are few, then their chances decrease further.

Academics who perform cross-disciplinary research can enlarge the evidence base through multiple modalities, even for unusual pairings such as tourism and medicine. Innovative papers integrating these seemingly distinct areas have offered valuable insight into the roles of tourism in individuals’ health and quality of life.

Academic freedom does call for a certain degree of management, namely in ensuring specific rules are followed. But there is immense promise in giving researchers the freedom to test new means of solving problems, especially by working with other disciplines. 

ED: Dr Jun Wen is a lecturer in Tourism and Service Marketing at the School of Business and Law, Edith Cowan University.