Celebrate Polydisciplinary Minds

Major challenges and needs of humanity include climate change, biodiversity loss, inflation, inequality, education, food supply, health care, security, sanitation, clean resources, transportation, and circular economy demand polydisciplinary efforts
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Human beings sustained and prospered on planet earth mainly because they have been generating knowledge, accumulating knowledge, and passing on knowledge to successive generations. Knowledge is never static.  Knowledge cultivates innovations.  Innovative minds leverage knowledge and devise creative solutions as per the needs and opportunities.  Innovation is the backbone of nations, which are competitive, and progressive, and deliver higher standards of living and opportunities to their citizens. Nations that understood this are investing in research, which is a prerequisite for sustained innovation. 

Clarivate is a global company that provides analytics of papers published in science and social sciences journals indexed in the Web of Science, and insights to the funding organizations and corporations to accelerate the pace of innovation (Clarivate 2022). According to Clarivate over the last decade, out of eight million researchers in the world, less than one percent published multiple papers frequently cited by their peers that rank in the top one percent of citations for field and publication year.  Clarivate just announced 7,200 Highly Cited Researchers (HCR), who have demonstrated significant and broad influence via the publication of multiple highly cited papers over the last decade. They constitute one in a thousand researchers.  It is not a surprise that more than half of them are from the USA and China (see Table) as both countries are heavily investing in scientific research and innovation, so as to gain competitive advantage in the technology and thus ensure vitality and vibrancy of respective economies.  

Table:  Number and percentage of Highly Cited Researchers by country

Country

Number HCRs

%

Australia

337

4.7

Canada

226

3.1

China

1,169

16.2

France

134

1.9

Germany

369

5.1

Netherlands

210

2.9

Singapore

106

1.5

Switzerland

112

1.6

United Kingdom

579

8

United States

2,764

38.3

What is even more interesting is that the total 7,200 HCR list consists of 4,000 highly cited researchers in 21 fields of the sciences and social sciences, and about 3,200 highly cited researchers identified as having exceptional performance across several fields i.e. cross-field performance.  In other words, about forty-five percent of HCRs have been pursuing cross-field research. They must be doing so for reasons including a) their research questions and innovations need cross-field pursuits, b) competitive research funding is given to their cross-field ideas and innovations, c) their workplace ecosystem allows for cross-field pursuits, and d) they can pool and leverage advances in several single disciplines.

The cross-field approach towards research and innovation is a welcoming trend and is to be encouraged in all countries and institutions.  Major challenges and needs of humanity include climate change, extreme weather, biodiversity loss, inflation, inequality, education, food supply, nutrition, health care, security, urbanization, sanitation, clean water, clean energy, resources, shelter, transportation, and circular economy demand polydisciplinary efforts (Nousala Susu, 2012).  Wherein, ‘polydisciplinary’ is an overarching term to encompass all types of exchanges among diverse disciplines.  Kiekens et al (2019) allude that the scientific research and innovations for sustainable solutions for the aforementioned human challenges need a collaborative approach | polydisciplinary approach which broadly refers to intradisciplinary, multidisciplinary, cross-disciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary approaches. 

A person with polydisciplinary mindset is also impactful in ways beyond merely solving problems.  For example, the 16th century Michelangelo had a lasting influence on western art, and was known to have knowledge of sculpture, painting, architecture, and poetry.  His senior Leonardo da Vinci produced the greatest paintings of art history. He pooled knowledge from a variety of subjects including anatomy, astronomy, botany, geology, drawing, civil engineering, hydrodynamics, optics, tribology, sculpture, architecture, and painting, and is often credited as the founder of the High Renaissance.  American scientist Benjamin Franklin was an inventor and multidisciplinary theorist.  Dawei Li et al (2021) analyzed and reported that 49.5% of the laureates of the Nobel prizes in medicine have a multidisciplinary educational background and 69% of their undergraduate majors are not directly in medicine. Most often Nobel laureates are creative thinkers and innovators who synthesize advances from various fields.  They perceive problems | topics from new perspectives and address them while harnessing knowledge from other fields.  In other words, polydisciplinary approach is necessary to advance knowledge and to create innovations.  For example, drying ubiquitously employed in human society is polydisciplinary encompassing diverse sciences and engineering disciplines. It is a mass transfer process involving the removal of water or another solvent from a solid, semi-solid or liquid, thus providing humanity with daily essentials such as salt, cereal grains, milk powder, and clothes, and lifesavers such as vaccines and medicines.  Without concurrent consideration of diverse disciplines including mathematics, computing, and social sciences, the subject of drying cannot be progressive and keep up with the changing situations and needs of human beings.

However, the ground realities for millions of researchers and innovators in thousands of universities in countries around the world are far from what is needed and desirable.  Their academic environment is too much conditioned to mono-disciplinary pursuits which imbue silo mindsets.  For example, the recruitment, recognition, and rewards systems are built to celebrate mono-disciplinary performances and achievements. The research ecosystem discourages early career researchers and all researchers in general from being polydisciplinary.  Their mentors often recommend they specialize in one narrow and niche area to maximize their chances of success. This is further compounded by a lack of adequate research funds, publication opportunities, education, talents, encouragement, and role models. 

It is to be noted that necessary innovations for the aforementioned human challenges as well as everlasting contributions often cannot be generated by a single discipline on its own.  Hence, we need to actively encourage and celebrate polydisciplinary minds, who are comfortable in pooling, synthesizing, and leveraging knowledge from diverse and multiple disciplines.  

References:

Clarivate (2022) https://clarivate.com/highly-cited-researchers/

Nousala, Susu. (2012). Emerging "living" communities - Scalability of knowledge transfer in complex systems. WMSCI 2012 - The 16th World Multi-Conference on Systemics, Cybernetics, and Informatics, Proceedings. 1. 246-251.

Kiekens, Anneleen & Jan, & Eynde, Sarah & Cleymans, Sam & Daems, Dries & Ridder, Bram & Despeghel, Jolien & Moonen, Pieter & Ovaere, Marten & Smeets, Niels. (2019). How to Move Towards a Common Understanding of Progress? A Transdisciplinary Exercise Involving 10 Young Researchers. Transdisciplinary Insights. 3. 187-197. 10.11116/TDI2019.3.7.

Dawei Li, Yijuan Wang, Zhi-Ping Liu (2021) Academic background of Nobel prize laureates reveals the importance of multidisciplinary education in medicine, Social Sciences & Humanities Open, Volume 3, Issue 1, 100114, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssaho.2021.100114.

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Go to the profile of Wayne Hu
about 2 months ago

The conception Polydisciplinary is also inspiring to STM industry.