Unlocking innovation: The benefits of working in multi-, inter-, and trans-disciplinary teams in academic research

09 Oct 2023 | By Paul Lawrence
Working in Teams2
09 Oct 2023 | By Paul Lawrence

In today's rapidly evolving world, academic research is increasingly embracing collaboration and interdisciplinary approaches to tackle complex problems. Multi-, inter-, and trans-disciplinary teams bring together individuals from diverse academic backgrounds to foster innovation and advance scientific knowledge. This article explores the myriad benefits of collaboration in the academic research environment, ranging from enhanced problem-solving abilities to accelerated scientific breakthroughs and broader societal impact. To strengthen this process and its outcomes, we will delve into the importance of effective communication, the promotion of inclusivity, and the cultivation of a collaborative research culture within these teams.

The importance of collaboration

Complex problems are challenging to solve from the perspective of a single discipline. By collaborating across disciplines, researchers can draw upon different perspectives and expertise. This multidimensional understanding allows for more comprehensive problem-solving approaches and leads to innovative solutions.
Also, interdisciplinary work has a broader impact. By considering multiple aspects of a problem (which are often complex by nature), teams can generate research outcomes that have implications beyond a single discipline. This broadens the potential applications and relevance of their work, making it more impactful in addressing real-world challenges.  There is also an opportunity to optimise resource utilisation. Researchers can partner with individuals who possess expertise and resources that complement their own, maximising the collective capabilities of the team. This shared pool of resources, knowledge, and skills accelerates the research process and enhances the quality of outcomes.

Moreover, interdisciplinary research provides opportunities for partnering with people who are experts in their respective fields. Collaborating with such experts not only contributes to the depth and rigor of the research but also offers valuable knowledge exchange and skills development opportunities mentorship and learning experiences as the diverse perspectives and knowledge shared within the team foster intellectual growth and professional development.

Finding your team 

Finding the right researchers to work with requires striking a balance between identifying individuals whose approaches and skills differ from your own, while still maintaining a strong alignment of vision to achieve the intended goals. Seek out people who bring diverse perspectives, methodologies, and expertise that complement your own to create a well-rounded team.

To achieve this, effective networking is crucial. Engage in formal and informal networking events, such as conferences, seminars, and workshops, to meet researchers from different disciplines. Actively seek opportunities to connect with individuals who share similar research interests but possess diverse backgrounds. Additionally, leveraging digital platforms and social media can help forge connections with researchers beyond traditional boundaries.

Cold contacts can also yield surprising collaborations. Don’t hesitate to reach out to researchers whose work intersets with your own, even if you have no prior connection. Initiate conversations and explore potential collaborations based on shared research interests and complementary expertise.

Universities often provide formal opportunities for interdisciplinary collaborations. Keep a lookout for announcements, grants, or projects advertised on university noticeboards or research funding portals. These opportunities may facilitate the formation of interdisciplinary teams with shared objectives and dedicated resources.
When considering potential collaborators, it is important to assess the alignment of values and thinking. While differences in gender, age, culture, career stages, and available resources bring advantages and disadvantages, a strong alignment in core values, research goals, and intellectual curiosity is crucial for sustained collaboration. Seek clarity on motivations, expectations, and the intended direction of research to ensure a harmonious and productive partnership.

Working together

Once the interdisciplinary team is formed, ensure that roles and responsibilities are clarified at an early stage. Managing expectations from the outset helps establish a clear framework for cooperation and avoids potential conflicts. Define the expected contribution from each team member, highlighting their specific expertise, contributions, and responsibilities. Teams may consider establishing guiding principles or a research charter. This document outlines the shared values, objectives, and expectations of the team, serving as a reference point for decision-making and ensuring alignment throughout the research process. It can also provide a framework for conflict resolution and decision-making in cases where differing perspectives arise.

In formalising the partnership, consider jointly applying for grants or funding opportunities. Collaborative grant applications demonstrate the collective strength of the interdisciplinary team and increase the chances of securing resources to support the research project. This shared funding can be utilised to access specialised equipment, hire research assistants, or facilitate data collection across different disciplines.

Another aspect of getting to work is the potential for joint co-supervision of students. By sharing the supervision of graduate students or postdoctoral researchers, interdisciplinary teams can provide a richer and more comprehensive training experience. This allows students to benefit from multiple perspectives and gain exposure to different research methodologies, enhancing their own interdisciplinary skill set.

Creating an inclusive environment

Establishing clear channels of communication and fostering an open and inclusive environment enables effective knowledge sharing and collaboration. Regular team meetings, both virtual and in-person, provide opportunities for exchanging ideas, sharing progress updates, and addressing any challenges that arise. Additionally, utilising digital tools and platforms for collaboration, such as shared project management systems or online document sharing, enhances information flow and ensures everyone is kept informed and engaged.

Embracing a collaborative and inclusive research culture is vital for the success of interdisciplinary teams. This entails fostering an environment where all team members feel valued, respected, and empowered to contribute their unique perspectives. Encourage open dialogue, active listening, and constructive feedback to cultivate a culture of mutual learning and growth. Emphasise the importance of embracing diversity and promoting inclusivity in all aspects of the research process.

In conclusion, working in multi-, inter-, and trans-disciplinary teams can offer numerous benefits. Embracing a collaborative and inclusive research culture ensures that interdisciplinary teams can maximise their potential, overcome challenges, and unlock innovative solutions to address complex real-world problems.