The Catalyst for Interdisciplinary Research

by Jamie Vernon | Sep 25, 2019

2018 Student Poster Session
The 2018 Student Research Conference poster session featured posters from more than 10 disciplines.

I’ve just returned from a trip to south Florida for the installation of a new Sigma Xi chapter at Nova Southeastern University. Students spearheaded the effort to establish a chapter on their campus and the enthusiasm for Sigma Xi was palpable. The ceremony was well-attended by faculty and students representing multiple departments from across the university. It occurred to me that few organizations can convene individuals from such a wide range of disciplines to share in the singular mission of improving the human condition. 

Recent emphasis on interdisciplinary research by funders, editors, and policymakers has ignited discussions about the challenges and opportunities of interdisciplinarity. Some have argued that interdisciplinary research suffers from structural issues related to funding and publishing as well as the narrow success metrics used by university appointment and promotion committees. All recognize that interdisciplinarity promotes integrative knowledge and innovation. This presents an opportunity for Sigma Xi's multidisciplinary membership to inspire and support interdisciplinary collaborations.

Researchers and policymakers know that interdisciplinary science can address problems that cannot be adequately resolved through a single discipline. The 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF), which measures university research strengths in the United Kingdom, asked academics to submit research studies that had significant impact outside of academia; 80 percent of the submissions were interdisciplinary. In 2016, the U.S. National Science Foundation unveiled a set of 10 Big Ideas, which determine areas of future investment. These ideas include Growing Convergence Research (GCR) to address vexing research problems that meet societal needs. Convergence research is distinct from other forms of multidisciplinary research by intentionally bringing together intellectually diverse researchers and stakeholders from the inception to frame the research questions, develop effective ways of communicating across disciplines and sectors, and adopt common frameworks for their solution from the inception. Sigma Xi is a fitting venue to promote this type of research. 

Sigma Xi has begun to mobilize our broad member representation in recent years by redesigning annual meetings to facilitate interdisciplinary discussions on the leading issues of our time: big data, STEM education, research ethics, and science communication. This year, our theme is about environmental change. We can leverage the collective expertise of the Sigma Xi community by sharing emerging research from many disciplines, encouraging collaborations, and pursuing potential solutions. You can advance this idea by coming to the Annual Meeting and Student Research Conference on November 14–17 in Madison, Wisconsin. Through September 30, you can use promo code climate10 to save 10 percent on registration.
Beyond the Annual Meeting, interdisciplinary researchers need a more welcoming place to develop their ideas, connect with collaborators, and build their careers. Sigma Xi chapters are your local melting pot for meeting fellow researchers and testing ideas. Make sure to participate and contribute to your local chapter events (find your closest chapter).

How else would you use the Sigma Xi network to address complex challenges facing humankind today? What do you think Sigma Xi should do to promote interdisciplinary research? And, on which interdisciplinary topics do you think Sigma Xi should take the lead? Please share your comments below. 

Jamie L. Vernon, PhD
Executive Director and CEO, Sigma Xi
Publisher, American Scientist

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