According to BiodivERsA’s Stakeholder Engagement Handbook, a stakeholder is someone who influences or is influenced by research. This includes policymakers, individuals in the private sector, non-governmental organizations, local communities—anyone with a vested interest, involvement, or funding in a project.
The handbook outlines four levels of stakeholder engagement.
Informing shares results with stakeholders.
Consulting asks stakeholders for opinions.
Involvement has stakeholders provide resources or data.
Collaboration positions stakeholders as partners directly contributing to the team.
Engaging with stakeholders holds many benefits, but takes time, money, and effort, requiring careful thought and planning. Stakeholders can be involved at any point in the process. They can help define the vision, develop project plans, provide training or data, review works in progress, or promote finished products using their public connections. Each stakeholder will have a unique role, with some preferring more or less involvement.
Interdisciplinary work opens doors to complex research and innovative solutions. However, not every problem calls for it, and not every researcher will benefit from it. So how do you know if interdisciplinarity is right for you?
How Big is Your Team?
For interdisciplinary work to succeed, small teams may be the best option for fostering creative problem solving and sharing methodologies. Otherwise, communication between team members may become unwieldy, detracting from the overall team’s efficiency.
“With a project like this, we had no idea where it was going, so a small team made it easier,” says Dr. Chris Clifton. Dr. Clifton was the principal investigator for big data ethics, one of four interdisciplinary projects from the Purdue Policy Research Institute’s (PPRI) Breaking Through, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation from 2016-2019. The other three initiatives were agricultural sustainability, climate tipping points, and flood risk mitigation.
“If you want to do something, you share with the entire team. Dealing with a half-dozen faculty, students, and post-docs, you can share everything. You can’t do that with a team of 20 or no one would have time to do anything but read emails. A small team is a good move for an exploratory project.”
Interdisciplinary work involves coordinating researchers and scholars across disciplines and even stakeholders outside the university. Once you’ve decided to engage in this research, how can you help your team succeed?
Even if you’ve done interdisciplinary work before, each project offers unique challenges. Planning ahead minimizes conflict and misunderstanding down the road, while ensuring everyone involved will find value in the project.
“Early on, find out what makes this project interesting and valuable to each team member based on their career stage and expertise,” says Dr. Manjana Milkoreit, principal investigator on climate tipping points, one of four interdisciplinary projects from Purdue Policy Research Institute’s (PPRI) Breaking Through, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation from 2016-2019. The other initiatives were big data ethics, agricultural sustainability, and flood risk mitigation.
Half the world’s population uses social media, according to Hootsuite’s 2020 digital report. On average, people spend two and a half hours a day on various platforms, but it’s not just mindless entertainment and online shopping. At least 43% of people use social media for work, and it’s not just PR offices and marketing gurus. Faculty and staff can take advantage of social media to promote their work for the benefit of the university as well as the public.
Dr. Kevin Solomon, Assistant Professor of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at Purdue, believes social media offers many benefits, including allowing people to target multiple audiences.
“Social media is a free and accessible platform for faculty to interact with the general public, stakeholders, students, and their peers,” says Dr. Solomon.
Beyond engaging with students for recruitment, classes, or research, faculty and staff can also reach out to non-academics, perhaps with significant results.
With interdisciplinary work becoming more common, the ability to work well in a team is a valuable skill. According to the National Cancer Institute’s Collaboration and Team Science: A Field Guide, “Increased specialization of research expertise and methods has made interdependence, joint ownership, and collective responsibility between and among scientists near requirements.”
While understanding how to communicate across disciplines can be a challenge, the innovative solutions those collaborations allow are in ever-increasing demand. So, how does a researcher ensure they’re interacting effectively within a team? The answers lie in the field of “team science,” described by the NCI as “a collaborative and cross-disciplinary approach to scientific inquiry that draws researchers, who otherwise would work independently or as co-investigators on smaller-scale projects, into collaborative centers and groups.”
From 2016-2019, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation funded Breaking Through, an interdisciplinary initiative with the Purdue Policy Research Institute (PPRI). Four teams were selected, each focused on a grand global challenge: big data ethics, agricultural sustainability, climate tipping points, and flood risk mitigation. To encourage interdisciplinary work, each team included members from the humanities, from STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines, and from the libraries. To promote engaged communication, stakeholders (i.e. policymakers, government officials) were involved throughout the research.
While the interdisciplinary approach is a unique challenge, the benefits are undeniable. When interdisciplinary teams make strong, early connections with stakeholders, it amplifies their research’s impact. Crossing disciplines allows for thoughtful and complex research, while communicating with stakeholders ensures the end results are practical assets for the community.