Importance of Cross-Disciplinary Approaches
Traditionally, chemists have been trained largely, if not entirely in their own discipline and have
then been drawn into engagement with scientists from other disciplines. However, there are
disadvantages to this compartmentalization of sciences:
- Within a complex and mature discipline like chemistry, both the inspiration for research
(whether ‘blue skies’ or ‘applied’) and the capacity to tackle
problems often originates from knowledge or challenges coming from outside; and is
increasingly dependent on the use of sophisticated techniques – such as advanced
computing, analytical instrumentation, bioanalytical and biotechnology processes, methods of
observation, measurement and manipulation – that often originate in another field. The
history of advances in chemistry and the stories of many of the Nobel prizes in the field
abound with examples of chemists who became aware of a problem or puzzling observation and
of novel techniques that could be adapted for its investigation.
- Each stand-alone discipline has acquired a set of distinctive processes and methodologies.
There are advantages in learning from an early stage how other branches of science think,
what kinds of processes, techniques and measures they employ, how they think about
constructing and testing hypotheses, what standards they apply to concepts such as purity
and proof and what are considered to be the important fundamental and applied challenges in
- Working effectively across disciplines does not come automatically – it requires the
development not only of knowledge of other fields but also of skills (including
communication, thinking outside the box, being able to synthesise information of diverse
kinds, working in teams) that should be inculcated from an early stage of science
In addition to challenging the capacities of individual chemists to adapt to working with scientists
in other disciplines, there are also major systemic barriers to working across disciplinary
boundaries. These include factors intrinsic to the nature of chemistry itself; structural factors in
academic institutions and the persistence of traditional attitudes towards discipline-based subjects
that become silos; difficulties in securing research funds and in publishing work; and the relative
lack of value that some institutions place on cross-disciplinary and multi-authored research, which
can hamper career progression.
Nevertheless, chemistry has increasingly been drawn into cross-disciplinary engagements, the nature
of which can take a number of different forms as illustrated below
(Note: while they can be categorised separately in principle as below, there are often overlaps in
practice with elements of the different forms being used in combination or tandem.)
- Multidisciplinary – bringing together knowledge and problem-solving approaches from
a host of fields that can each contribute, ‘side-by-side’, to different stages or
aspects of problem-solving; and interdisciplinary – developing expertise in working
across the boundaries between chemistry and other disciplines and transferring methods from one
discipline to another.
Examples of practical operation of multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary sciences involving
- Drug development – where medicinal/synthetic/analytical aspects of
chemistry combine sequentially and iteratively with disciplines such as pharmacology,
biology, toxicology and clinical sciences to produce a drug that is sufficiently
effective, safe, stable and efficient to produce for clinical use.
- Botanical classification – a field that was transformed in the
20th century by the importation of chemistry techniques of isolation and
structure elucidation to enable plants to be characterised and their classifications
determined according to their chemical constituents, resulting in the emergence of
‘phytochemistry’ and ‘chemical plant taxonomy’.
- Climate change science – a field that brings together and synthesises
knowledge and approaches from many different disciplines, including geography,
meteorology, oceanography, physics and chemistry) to understand how physical and
chemical effects on an Earth scale influence the planet's climate.
- Semiconductors – – the development of which as the basis of modern
computers has depended on an interdisciplinary approach to developing new materials with
specific physical properties.
- Transdisciplinary: beyond interdisciplinary (which still implies the autonomy of subjects
working in cooperation), creating a new synthesis of chemistry and other subjects in which
knowledge, methods and solutions are developed holistically: recognizing that valuable knowledge
can be found in the spaces between defined disciplines, addressing the complexity of problems
and the diversity of perceptions of them, and requiring not only in-depth knowledge and know-how
of the disciplines involved, but also skills in moderation, mediation, association and
transfer. It has been argued that the shift from disciplinary to transdisciplinary research
corresponds to a transition from compartmentalised, corrective, problem solving approaches to
systemic, preventive ones. The term ‘convergence’ has also been used to describe the
approach to problem solving that cuts across disciplinary boundaries and integrates knowledge,
tools, and ways of thinking from diverse disciplines.
Many of chemistry's greatest opportunities for contribution to human progress have been, and in the
future will be, at the interfaces with other subjects, since the challenges that the world faces are
complex and often require transdisciplinary solutions. Approaches that are cross-disciplinary in
nature need to be fostered for chemistry to most effectively contribute.
In an analysis of the field, four criteria were suggested
transdisciplinary research: (1)
Problem orientation: research questions
derived from "real-world" problems. (2)
A suitable definition of
sub-problems which is a prerequisite for the integration of the results. (3)
Free choice of scientific methods adequate for each of the sub-problems.
Close relations between the sub-problems are crucial for the
development of an overall solution. Once there is recognition of the real-world problem and the
scientific problem is defined independently of disciplines, a four-stage process of problem solving
is proposed: (1)
Understanding of the problem: Identification and
analysis of main questions. (2)
Separation of the problem into fields
of application of different methods (sub-problems). (3)
Solution of the
sub-problems with mutual connections. (4)
Integration of the results
into a solution of the entire problem – with the cross-disciplinary results leading to
application of the proposed solutions. Examples include:
- In studies on environmental and ecological chemistry, the inputs of political and social as
well as science knowledge are critical.
- The series of conferences on transdisciplinary amino acid research initiated in 1991
illustrate how a theme unifying chemistry, biology and medicine can drive new breakthroughs
in knowledge and applications.
- Transdisciplinary research involving chemistry has been adopted in many areas including
smart energy, chemistry/microbiology, life processes, cancer, tobacco harm reduction,
bio-manufacturing, cardiovascular diseases, the grape and wine industry, child development
and water supply, radiation biology,
chemical biology, volcanic plumes,
silicifying organisms, and soil science and its applications in
the dairy industry.
It is also notable that the adoption of cross-disciplinary approaches can make the field of
chemistry much more attractive to potential students.
Colón et al. Chemical biology at the US National Science Foundation. Nature
Chemical Biology 2008, 4, 511 – 514, doi:10.1038/nchembio0908-511.
- B. Nicolescu.
Charter of Trans-disciplinarity. Adopted by the 1st World Congress of
Transdisciplinarity, Convento da Arrabida, Portugal, November 1994.
- Harvard School of Public
Health defines trans-disciplinary research as research efforts conducted by investigators
from different disciplines working jointly to create new conceptual, theoretical,
methodological, and translational innovations that integrate and move beyond discipline-specific
approaches to address a common problem.
- U. Zoller.
Environmental chemistry: The disciplinary/correction-transdisciplinary/prevention paradigm
shift. Envir. Sci and Pollution Res. 2000, 7, 63-5.
- Committee on Key Challenge Areas for Convergence and Health. Convergence:
Facilitating Transdisciplinary Integration of Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, Engineering, and
Beyond. Washington D.C.: National Academies Press 2014, 153pp.
- J. Jaeger, M. Scheringer,
The Structure of Transdisciplinary Research – Six Case Studies. ETH, Zürich,
- M. Scheringer. What are
the Objectives of Environmental Science? A Critical Discussion. ETH, 2013.
- G.H. Hadorn, C. Pohl,
M. Scheringer. Methodology of transdisciplinary research. In: G.H. Hadorn (Ed.) Unity of
knowledge (in transdiciplinary research for sustainability). UNESCO & Encyclopaedia of Life
Support Systems, Vol II, 2015, 10pp
- K. Takai. Introduction to
the Transdisciplinary International Conference on Aromatic Amino Acids and Related Substances:
Chemistry, Biology, Medicine, and Applications. J. Nutrition, 2007, 137, 1501S-1503S.
- Bingham Universty: smart energy.
- University of Vienna: "Chemistry meets Microbiology".
University: Chemistry of Life Processes Institute.
- National Institutes of Health: Breast Cancer
and the Environment Research Program.
- K.G. Provan, P.I. Clark, T.R. Huerta.
Transdiciplinarity among tobacco harm reduction researchers: A network analytic approach.
- Brock University:
Transdisiplinary research: beyond boundaries.
- ESF-EMBO Symposium.
Spatio-temporal radiation biology: transdisciplinary advances for biomedical applications. ESF
- Project STRAP:
Trans-disciplinary collaboration to investigate volcano plumes risks. French National Research
- Silicamics: Conference on biochemistry and
genomics of silicification and silicifiers. Brest, France 21-25 September 2015.
- J. M. Powell,
G. A. Broderick. Transdisciplinary Soil Science Research: Impacts of Dairy Nutrition
on Manure Chemistry and the Environment. Soil Sci. Soc. Am. J. 2011, 75(6), 1-8.
- D. Blankenhorn. New Tools Let Chemistry Solve the Energy Crisis.
RenewableEnergyWorld.com 16 May 2011.