Scholarly motivations to conduct interdisciplinary climate change research

  • Anita MilmanEmail author
  • John M. Marston
  • Sarah E. Godsey
  • Jessica Bolson
  • Holly P. Jones
  • C. Susan Weiler


Understanding and responding to today’s complex environmental problems requires collaboration that bridges disciplinary boundaries. As the barriers to interdisciplinary research are formidable, promoting interdisciplinary environmental research requires understanding what motivates researchers to embark upon such challenging research. This article draws upon research on problem choice and interdisciplinary research practice to investigate motivators and barriers to interdisciplinary climate change (IDCC) research. Results from a survey on the motivations of 526 Ph.D.-holding, early- to mid-career, self-identified IDCC scholars indicate how those scholars make decisions regarding their research choices including the role of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations and the barriers arising from the nature of interdisciplinary research and institutional structures. Climate change was not the main motivation for most respondents to become scholars, yet the majority began to study the issue because they could not ignore the problem. Respondents’ decisions to conduct IDCC research are driven by personal motivations, including personal interest, the importance of IDCC research to society, and enjoyment of interdisciplinary collaborations. Two thirds of respondents reported having encountered challenges in communication across disciplines, longer timelines while conducting interdisciplinary work, and a lack of peer support. Nonetheless, most respondents plan to conduct IDCC research in the future and will choose their next research project based on its societal benefits and the opportunity to work with specific collaborators. We conclude that focused attention to supporting intrinsic motivations, as well as removing institutional barriers, can facilitate future IDCC research.


Interdisciplinarity Problem choice Climate change research Early-career researchers Motivations Barriers 



We offer thanks to three anonymous reviewers whose considered comments substantially improved this manuscript. This work was supported in part by National Science Foundation grants # SES-0932916 (Whitman College/Weiler), IIA-1301792 (Idaho State University/Godsey), and EAR-1204762 (University of Pennsylvania/Bolson); National Aeronautics and Space Administration grant # NNX10AJ53G (Whitman College/Weiler); and by a Peter Paul Career Development Professorship (Boston University/ Marston).

Supplementary material

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Copyright information

© AESS 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Environmental ConservationUniversity of MassachusettsAmherstUSA
  2. 2.Department of ArchaeologyBoston UniversityBostonUSA
  3. 3.Department of GeosciencesIdaho State UniversityPocatelloUSA
  4. 4.Risk Management and Decision Processes Center, Wharton SchoolUniversity of PennsylvaniaPhiladelphiaUSA
  5. 5.Department of Biological SciencesNorthern Illinois UniversityDeKalbUSA
  6. 6.Office for Earth System StudiesWhitman CollegeWalla WallaUSA

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