Overcoming Early Career Barriers to Interdisciplinary Climate Change Research

by | Jun 13, 2018

None are likely better suited to interdisciplinary research than those early in their scientific careers, and the next generation of scientists whom they are today teaching, advising, and mentoring.

Climate-change impacts are among the most serious and complex challenges facing society, affecting both natural systems (physical, biological, and chemical) and the human social networks interacting with the natural and built environment. These require research which addresses (1) the study of the causes of, and the natural, social, and economic system responses to, climate change; (2) the development of best practices for adapting and mitigating the resulting challenges; and (3) the outreach to policy makers and the broader public to ensure that decisions are made based on the most comprehensive science available. Addressing these compels a new paradigm of interdisciplinary collaboration which incorporates tools, techniques, and insights from across the social, natural, and engineering sciences. Yet, a broad range of extrinsic and intrinsic challenges limit the reach, effectiveness, and success of such interdisciplinary research. These include the acknowledgement of scientific contributions within an interdisciplinary framework, and the explicit conceptual, communication, and organizational hurdles of conducting meaningful, integrated research across disciplines. These can be especially daunting for early-career scientists, who generally have less job security, e.g., pre-tenure or equivalent, and have yet to establish a strong reputation within their respective disciplines. Yet, none are likely better suited to interdisciplinary research than those early in their scientific careers, and the next generation of scientists whom they are today teaching, advising, and mentoring. Indeed, given their early career status, these scientists are expected to be among those most exposed to, and well-trained in, interdisciplinarity, but also those for whom deep engagement in IDR carries the greatest career risk.

A recent study published in WIREs Climate Change explores these challenges and seeks potential solutions through use of a bibliometric analysis and survey of early to mid- career scientists from 56 countries who were involved with the interdisciplinary DISsertations initiative for the advancement of Climate Change ReSearch (DISCCRS).  Results indicated that, despite the need to foster interdisciplinary research and the availability of multiple prospective solutions, there remain expansive structural challenges to its promotion and recognition which, unless collectively addressed, will continue to hinder its potential growth and application to climate-change science. Specifically, survey respondents perceive conflict between the need for interdisciplinary climate-change research and its potential detriment to career advancement. They also note the perceived needs for: (1) expanded training (notably in communication and team skills) and networking opportunities, such as those provided by the DISCCRS symposia; and (2) encouragement from senior colleagues and institutions. Such networking and training symposia had both perceived and measurable impacts on the likelihood of engagement in climate-centric interdisciplinary research. Respondents also ranked alternative mechanisms for encouraging incorporation of interdisciplinary science at early career stages, prioritizing funding of interdisciplinary seed grants, fellowships, and junior faculty networks, interdisciplinary teamwork and communication training, and interdepartmental symposia.

Early career scientists represents part of the upcoming cohort of researchers, educators, and administrators across academia, government, and the private and non-profit sectors who are actively working across the natural and social sciences to address pressing scientific and societal issues such as those associated with climate change. Facilitating and promoting interdisciplinary climate-centric research among this group will allow them to overcome the many intrinsic and extrinsic barriers to interdisciplinarity and serve to enhance connectivity across the ever-growing and ever-more-complex field of climate science as these scientists develop into leaders within and across their disciplines.


Kindly contributed by Christopher J. Hein John E. Ten Hoeve Sathya Gopalakrishnan Ben Livneh Henry D. Adams Elizabeth K. Marino C. Susan Weiler.

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