Interdisciplinary research is critical to solving most of our current environmental crises and human problems. It is particularly relevant to ecology (e.g. landscape ecology, environmental humanities, and the ecosystem services (ES) concept). This volume of the journal Ecosystems from 1999 has some great articles on the issue.
…the public is interested in the big picture painted by science, and that picture is rarely painted by a single discipline. We find, therefore, that communicating interdisciplinary results to the public is generally easier than communicating disciplinary results.
– Daily & Ehrlich (1999)
To non-scientists, interdisciplinary research makes sense, because Life is interdisciplinary. But communicating interdisciplinary results within those disciplines can be a lot harder. Every scientific discipline has its own approach to concepts, methodology, analysis and research generally. That’s what maintains knowledge diversity within ‘science’. But it can cause misunderstanding between disciplines, when we forget that other kinds of scientists may do science slightly differently to what is the ‘norm’ in our own field.
A few months ago, I attempted something radical. I trialled a pilot study of environmental yeast collection from insects. I was already working on a project about insect-mediated ES in apple orchards, and I knew that some insects carry yeasts and microbes on their bodies. So I wondered if there was potential for flying insects to carry ‘beneficial’ yeasts that help break down the discarded apple fruit after harvest, thus providing an ES to growers.
Now (here’s the radical part) I have absolutely zero background in microbiology and my experience with yeasts is limited to inhaling a good red wine. However, because I’m based at a small university campus, our ecology laboratory facilities are shared with the community health researchers. Bonus! It seemed possible that I could do this, because surely someone from the health labs could help me out with the basics.
I already had the field sites lined up, so I only needed to buy some agar plates to run the experiment. My plan was to try and catch insects in the field (mainly bees and flies), trap them in the plate so they walked around on it for some period of time, and then compare those plates with swabs from decaying fruit. Sounds easy, right? Science is never easy.
Funnily, the biggest obstacle I encountered throughout the process was not my own lack of expertise, but the opposition I received from the health staff. Some of them were actively against helping me, supposedly because I had no knowledge of their discipline (the implication being that I was wasting everyone’s time). I managed to get access to an incubator to culture the plates, but other than that I was on my own. And because I didn’t know what I was doing, I gave up.
Financially and logistically, this failed pilot study didn’t impact the rest of my work, so I just counted my losses and moved on. But it made me realise how hard it is, especially for early career researchers like myself, to try and get interdisciplinary projects off the ground.
This week, another experience brought the same point home. Recently, a paper by Gregory Bratman et al. was published in PNAS on how nature walks may improve mental well-being by helping to reduce rumination (dwelling compulsively on negative thoughts), a cognitive pattern that increases risk of depression and anxiety-related mental illness. I didn’t read the paper, but the findings were commonsense, and I knew from personal experience that the effect exists. I also noted that one of the co-authors, Gretchen Daily, was an ecologist who literally wrote the book on ecosystem services, and I thought it was neat that ecologists and neuroscientists were collaborating to develop a new concept that might help nature conservation, ‘psychological ecosystem services’.
Yesterday morning, I was surprised to see a tweet claiming that the research was ‘dodgy’. I questioned why, and was directed to this blog by Micah Allen, a neuroscience post-doc researcher. It’s a bit nasty, but some of his points appeared reasonable, when taken out of context in a general science sort of way. So I went back and read the whole paper (bearing in mind that I am not a neuroscientist so I didn’t follow the jargon)…and I didn’t have a major problem with the study. Of course I didn’t recognise any of the neuro researchers, but a number of respected ecologists were involved in the paper: Gretchen Daily is Bratman’s PhD co-supervisor; and another eminent ecologist (Paul Ehrlich) and a couple of well-known conservation scientists (Peter Kareiva, Heather Tallis) were listed in the acknowledgements.
Was I missing something? According to his website, Micah Allen (the blog author) is a Post-doctoral Fellow at UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience. He has an impressive CV and 14,700 Twitter followers. His tweet about the blog post was shared 164 times, including by some high-profile science writers and bloggers (therefore, potentially reaching a much wider non-scientific audience).
To a non-neuroscientist like myself, it seemed that this guy must know what he was talking about. Yet, many of the co-authors and named reviewers of this paper also appeared to know what they were talking about, as they were experienced and award-winning researchers and field-leaders in neuroscience or psychology (here, here, here, here, here). (And here’s another neuroscientist’s more positive view on the paper). I was confused.
According to Bratman’s webpage, his interdisciplinary PhD research is using the science, concepts and methods of psychology, neuroscience and ecology to define and study ‘psychological ES’. This is a new concept (with an old history, of course) that was introduced back in 2012 by Bratman, Hamilton & Daily in this literature review. The point being, that no one appears to have worked out how to test this concept neurologically, so Bratman et al. are having a go by combining the expertise of ecologists, neuroscientists and psychologists (see also this larger study with similar methods from the authors).
I can’t comment specifically on the technical aspects of this study, but I think Allen’s blog highlights how difficult it can be for interdisciplinary research to be accepted by peers – one of the main issues raised on the blog was that such a ‘low-effort’ pilot study by ‘non-experts’ was published in PNAS. And that the main result is only ‘marginally significant’ (p value of 0.07). That doesn’t make it shoddy research. P values are not always reliable or useful. And in ecology, a p value of 0.07 is certainly not the end of the world – there can still be a clear biological interaction without a significant p value.
Statistical machismo is not cool in any science. I think it’s great that this study included just enough analysis needed to address the very simple research aim (which was “to observe whether a 90-minute nature experience has the potential to decrease rumination”, my emphasis). Yes, it sounds like a pilot study, but who cares? This is how science advances – by putting ground-breaking research out there, even with limitations, so we can all start building on that knowledge.
And Bratman et al. don’t make any overtly causal claims in the paper, which is appropriate reporting for observational studies of small sample sizes where other unmeasured factors may be involved (see my previous post on this). And they clearly explain how much more research needs to be done to confirm these results.
Interdisciplinary research is really hard, and it can be even harder for doctoral students. But it’s a challenge we have to accept. Sometimes, to achieve a valid coverage of all the different elements relevant to a particular interdisciplinary research goal, some compromises may need to be made on details that could perhaps be addressed more precisely by only addressing one of those elements. But, as long as those limitations are acknowledged, this doesn’t (in itself) make the study ‘dodgy’.
As scientists or science writers, making claims like this about cross-disciplinary studies doesn’t help scientific progress, and it doesn’t help public understanding of science. A better approach is to explain clearly what discipline-specific details may have been overlooked, how these details affect the overall interdisciplinary outcome, and how future studies could build on that knowledge.
© Manu Saunders 2015