Challenges of integrative research

Challenges of integrative research

Jan. 10, 2014

Jackie Hulina was a master's student in the Michigan State University's Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability. 

You can’t blame scientists for doing what they do best.  Integrative research can be a noble goal, but is it feasible?

To give you the short answer, yes.  However, it takes a lot more effort than disciplinary research. 

Integrative research is one of the new buzzwords surrounding science, and it goes by many names: multidisciplinary, collaborative, holistic, interdisciplinary, the list goes on…

The basic gist of integrative studies is that scientists from various fields work together to solve a problem because reality doesn’t exist in distinct units that belong only to social science, biology, or physics.  In theory, the best way to solve a problem is to follow where it leads – even if that means using methods from another branch of science. 

That’s nice.  But how do you do that?

Some scientists have proposed the idea of thinking in systems. (See Donella Meadows book review) That idea says that reality is comprised of interacting pieces whose collective behavior makes up a system.  Depending on those pieces and their relationships, one system’s response to some stimulus can vary drastically from another system. This is a basic premise of the whole “telecoupling” idea I’ve been ranting about – think about Kirtland’s warblers traveling between multiple systems that behave very differently. 

Again, this is a nice idea, but there are a lot of obstacles to overcome to make it happen.

Philosophically, how do you decide the “boundary” at which a system ends?  At least for Kirtland’s warblers, breeding and wintering systems are fairly obvious.  It’s those spillover systems that areKW Wildlife Management Area. Credit USFWS-Midwest tricky. What do you even consider a relevant spillover system and where are its edges? Migratory routes could include a large chunk of the eastern U.S. Political boundaries don’t always make sense ecologically.  How would you track the flow of ideas to other systems when it could be as simple as a conversation over the phone or a mass email that’s been forwarded several times?

Some would argue that it’s not feasible to study all parts of a system at once, so the cut-off decisions in systems thinking are just as arbitrary as in disciplinary thinking.  The challenge here is to decide at which point the science of systems thinking is overshadowed by an incomprehensible web of descriptions and methods – what is the least amount of relevant “things” needed to accurately represent systems’ behaviors? Which locations and types of habitat along the migration route seem to have the most sightings of KW? Where are the political groups that are most active in KW recovery based? How many hits does the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s webpage for KW get in a day? 

Disciplinary science has a formal structure for gathering knowledge, giving explanations, and fostering constructive criticism to root out bad science, whereas systems thinking is new enough that there’s no set method to tell when someone’s work is subpar. To be fair, this issue may be resolved with time.

Practically speaking, integrative research takes a lot more effort and resources to get meaningful results than disciplinary research.  Part of this is just trying to communicate between people who speak different scientific languages.  As a biologist, it’s hard to figure out what questions I want to ask a hard-core computer programmer because we ask different questions and have different definitions for the same terms. 

For example, the term “genetic” makes me think about proteins and nucleic acids, while the programmer would think of binary optimization problems.  The solution is simply to take the time to hash out details – what does everyone mean by X and how do we want to study it? Imagine how much more complex that conversation would be when trying to figure out modeling KW behavior across multiple ecological systems, time scales, and political boundaries.

Also, many research institutions determine scientists’ worth by the number of publications they have authored (the “publish or perish” mentality).  Why spend 3 years taking the time to hash out details on a collaborative research project if it means your name is not listed as lead author and you’re not paid for the extra headaches?  A few major universities, like MSU, are trying to change this by being successful integrative researchers.

In the end, systems thinking is a necessary complement to disciplinary thinking. While disciplinary research is useful the details on pieces of a system, it misses the bigger picture of how the pieces fit together to create large-scale behaviors.

KW Sign, Muskegon River, Harrison, MI - Credit: Jason SturnerBIG PICTURE IDEA: One major example is the need to study interactions between human activities and the environment.  Humans are generally studied separately from ecological systems, but human actions have consequences for ecological systems such as habitat loss, decline of species, altering disturbance regimes, introducing pollution, overharvesting species, and amplifying the effects of climate change (Goudie 2013).

Naturally, there are challenges to using systems thinking because it has not been in existence long enough to work out some of the logistical kinks. All the same, improving communication between disciplines is necessary to better inform decision-makers, and applying systems thinking through integrative research is one way to encourage it.

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