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Thoughts on interdisciplinarity

Many of the challenges facing the world today demand interdisciplinary research and a more holistic approach involving a closer integration of the social and natural sciences. Palgrave publishes content in a variety of these interdisciplinary fields and consequently we have a great opportunity to develop exciting and innovative titles that reflect a growing need for ‘interdisciplinarity’ at the social/natural science interface. It is increasingly recognised within the natural science community that Social Science Matters and cannot be ignored when addressing some of the ‘Grand Challenges’ we face as a society. Debates surrounding climate change; resilience and adaptation to natural hazards and disasters; energy and food security to name a few all demand an integrated social/natural science approach if we are to develop effective solutions to these problems. For each of these ‘Grand Challenges’ and in order to address the recently launched Sustainable Development Goals, scientific, technical and engineering expertise can only go so far towards solving the problem. This must be matched with social, psychological and political perspectives in order to understand implementation, human reactions and human behaviour and therefore present viable, long-term solutions.

In response to some of these core societal challenges there has been an increased focus on the development of interdisciplinary research centres and networks within many academic institutions. A great example of an initiative that is striving to achieve the holy grail of truly integrated research is The Nexus Network. This initiative is an ESRC funded project that aims to foster research and debate around the food, energy, water and environment nexus. The network is open to researchers from all disciplines and to decision-makers and practitioners. One of their core aims is to ‘support interdisciplinary, cross-sector collaborations between social and natural scientists working on nexus topics, and between academic researchers and those in government, business and civil society engaged in these debates.’

It is probably too early to say whether some of these projects will succeed in their aim to foster truly integrated, cross-disciplinary research. Many of the fundamental challenges these projects face are simply how social and natural scientists communicate when they are approaching these problems from such different perspectives. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this is sometimes almost impossible to achieve but if we are going to embrace research where there is balance between the social and natural sciences many external factors will need to change to enable this to happen. The funding landscape appears to be a minefield with many academics observing a bias towards projects that are skewed towards either the natural or social sciences rather than those projects that present a more integrated approach. The willingness for ‘interdisciplinarity’ is there but the means to do so is sometimes prohibitive.

We find ourselves at an exciting time in the academic and publishing world when researchers are increasingly being asked to collaborate across disciplines and show how their work has impact in a more applied setting. This focus will underpin much of what we do in terms of our publishing in these areas and we should relish the challenge to explore opportunities for collaboration and where we can develop exciting and relevant content to meet the needs of the diverse subject communities we serve.