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A study of faculty perceptions and engagement with interdisciplinary research in university sustainability institutes

Abstract

It has long been argued that solutions to inform better decisions on environmental challenges require research at the boundaries of scientific disciplines. Research institutes and centers at universities can be key vehicles for the convergence of scientists from multiple disciplines and the development of integrated, interdisciplinary knowledge. Through a survey of over two hundred faculty in three sustainability research institutes based in the USA, this study explored faculty perceptions of interdisciplinary research, their levels of engagement in interdisciplinary work, and how they view the role of the research institute in enabling interdisciplinary research. The investigation shows that over 95% of faculty at the institutes studied are carrying out research with colleagues outside their own discipline, with half of the faculty spending more than two-thirds of their time on interdisciplinary work. Over half of faculty members are engaging in long-distance interdisciplinary research across the natural-social sciences boundary which is seen as crucial for sustainability science. The research institutes are having a positive influence on facilitating interdisciplinarity with more than four out of five faculty indicating that the institute has enabled interdisciplinary research opportunities that would have not have been possible in their home school. The opportunity to engage in interdisciplinary research is among the most important reasons for faculty to join institutes. While limited to three institutes, the study provides robust evidence for the powerfully beneficial role that research institutes can play as enablers on interdisciplinary research within their university.

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Notes

  1. Survey participants were informed that the study defined interdisciplinary research as a mode of research that integrates research from two or more academic disciplines to advance fundamental understanding or to solve problems as defined by the National Academy of Sciences (2004).

  2. Of course, there can still be much crossover between these super disciplines, e.g., social scientists may often use methods resembling those of the natural sciences as tools for understanding society, and economists can use both quantitative and qualitative methods.

  3. While there is no clear definition of disciplines, in order of transcending different methods, tools, and epistemologies, it is clear that a collaboration between a chemical engineer and mechanical engineer might be easier than a collaboration between a chemical engineer and a biologist, which again might be easier than between a chemical engineer and a sociologist.

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Acknowledgment

The author would like to thank Dr. Rob Melnick at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, Dr. Alison Miller at the Earth Institute, and Dr. Graham Kerslick and Professor David Lodge at the Cornell Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future for hosting and supporting the scholarship. The author would also like to thank Dr. Ger Mullally, Dr. Niall Dunphy, and Dr. Alexandra Revez at the University College Cork for their advice and guidance with the development of the study methodology and Professor Sarah Culloty for the support of the study.

Funding

This study was carried out under an Ireland-United States Fulbright Scholarship with funding from the Irish Environmental Protection Agency and the Environmental Research Institute, University College Cork.

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Correspondence to Paul Bolger.

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The study and the survey were reviewed and approved by the Social and Research Ethics Committee at the University College Cork.

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Bolger, P. A study of faculty perceptions and engagement with interdisciplinary research in university sustainability institutes. J Environ Stud Sci 11, 115–129 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13412-020-00616-7

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Keywords

  • Interdisciplinary
  • Interdisciplinarity
  • Sustainability
  • Environmental
  • Research institutes
  • Research centers