Home | Industry & Research | Putting collaboration on the map: using interdisciplinary research to battle timely global issues

Putting collaboration on the map: using interdisciplinary research to battle timely global issues

Perhaps no topic in recent history has garnered as much public and academic attention as COVID-19. News of this pandemic has saturated the international airwaves since it was first reported in late 2019. In its wake, life has ground to a near complete halt: businesses are shuttering, many professionals are working from home and education has shifted online – all while parts of the world struggle to cope with a disease outbreak unlike any in recent memory.

Keeping pace with the pandemic’s evolution is a priority for many. But while media coverage of COVID-19 is vast, it is also contradictory. News stories can be biased – politically and otherwise – when providing information about the virus and how best to manage it. A certain degree of inconsistency is to be expected; after all, this disease is something of a moving target in and of itself, like its viral ribonucleic acid (RNA) structure. New discoveries about its transmission, behaviour and treatment emerge seemingly every day.

It is therefore unsurprising that medical professionals, newscasters and other involved parties may have differing opinions on what the virus means for local citizens and the greater world. We are grappling with new laws and regulations, engaging in unfamiliar activities and being forced to confront a novel reality. Some are doing so without their usual support systems.

Few people could have foreseen this level of isolation and anxiety even three months ago. Put simply, nothing about our current circumstances is normal, and the unpredictability of this unprecedented pandemic has proven challenging for everyday people and academics alike.

The gravity of COVID-19 makes it all the more important that the public be provided with clear, objective information. Science is immeasurably valuable, but not always digestible. One way to address potential misunderstandings about the virus is to bring the medical and social sciences together. By combining the strengths of these two domains, researchers and media outlets can provide timely, accurate information to those who need it most.

The hard and soft approach

The ‘hard’ sciences, such as medicine, are essential in the fight against COVID-19. Relevant information about the virus, how it functions, and a possible future vaccine can only be uncovered by medical and other life science experts. Yet the potential for miscommunication arises when scientific findings are not well translated for the general public.

The nuances of viral spread are at times beyond the reach of everyday people. But awareness is our strongest ally: only by arming ourselves with knowledge will we have the best chance of controlling COVID-19 while protecting our own and others’ health.

As a complement to the hard sciences, social science researchers can assume a key role in promoting the spread of accessible information. The advantages of social science contributions are multifold: not only can we learn about COVID-19 from an epidemiological standpoint, but we also begin to process how the pandemic has altered daily life as we know it.

Indeed, as citizens and professionals await a vaccine in hopes of eradicating this pandemic, social scientists can wield their communicative power to explore the ways in which the virus has changed how society functions.

At its core, social science is reliant on human behaviour and interaction. This dependence makes it an ideal partner to the medical sciences when it comes to transforming highly complex information into news that a lay audience can understand. While social scientists generally take a broader view of human phenomena, medical scientists often prefer a more granular approach – hence their focus on the innermost workings of human health.

A powerful alliance

Science should not be siloed. Just as bifocals can be used to clarify a person’s vision, by combining these two scientific lenses, we can see a more holistic and accurate picture of COVID-19.

The need for interdisciplinary work around COVID-19 is clear as true knowledge discovery rarely occurs in isolation. Consider, for example, how many disciplines have contributed to research on obesity ­­– another global health problem.

We know more about this condition than ever thanks to input from biologists, geneticists, nutritionists, neuropsychologists, psychiatrists, public health experts and others. Such “meetings of the minds” can move scientific domains beyond methodological comparison to identify new ways of addressing research questions.

Strength in difference

Yet it is worth noting here that difficulties in communicating medical science do not only affect media consumers; similar obstacles exist between medical and social scientists themselves. Even when these scientists decide to join forces in the fight against COVID-19, numerous challenges can arise. Several barriers must be broken if interdisciplinary work is to be carried out successfully.

For instance, these two academic camps – the so-called “hard” and “soft” sciences – have long been viewed differently. In the hierarchy of science, the hard sciences tend to appear at the summit while the soft sciences are below.

This distinction can create discrepancies in authority, respect, relevance and even financial support. To some, hard sciences are more “reputable” than soft, perhaps due to the greater perceived rigour of the former.

These opinions are shifting in some circles, and social scientists do earn recognition for their scholarly contributions. Even so, preconceived notions about both sides are important to keep in mind when considering how interdisciplinary research can unearth new discoveries about COVID-19.

Challenges may persist when academics decide to pursue interdisciplinary funding. For example, interdisciplinary projects can be tougher to evaluate than strictly hard or soft science-focused initiatives, thus complicating selection committees’ funding decisions. If the benefits of interdisciplinary work are properly highlighted, however, the knowledge gained from these multifaceted projects can often be greater than the output from either branch of science alone.

It is also vitally important that both camps make their approaches understandable to one another. Medical and social scientists tend to speak distinct languages given their divergent foci. Only by developing a shared vernacular can pandemic-related information be provided to the public in a way that honours the timeliness of data and our need to truly understand it. Such insight can inspire fresh perspectives on the real scope of COVID-19: from its effects on physical health, mental wellbeing, social interaction and personal responsibility, to healthcare access, education, the labour market and countless other topics.

Forging a future path

The benefits of this type of knowledge exchange are certainly not limited to the current pandemic. By developing ways to bring the strengths of the medical and social sciences together, researchers will be able to use what they have learned about COVID-19 (and scientific communication in general) to tackle similarly challenging events in the future.

The ultimate outcome of interdisciplinary work will hopefully be clearer and more innovative policies and practices. These developments can be used to not only promote public health but also foster mutual understanding – among academics and, more importantly, the citizens of the world.

Dr Jun Wen is a lecturer in tourism and hospitality management in the School of Business and Law at Edith Cowan University.

Dr Wei Wang is a Professor in public health at the School of Medical and Health Sciences and Pro-Vice Chancellor at Edith Cowan University. 

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