IGC fellows initiate an interdisciplinary effort to tackle invasive species

Nature’s special issue about interdisciplinarity in 2015 referred to interdisciplinary research as an attempt to save the world by solving the grand challenges we are facing, such as energy, water, and climate (Nature News, 2015). Although saving the world might be too ambitious of a goal, our group of six IGC fellows from diverse disciplines gave it a shot! Our aim was to save Virginia’s natural and economic resources by adding a harmful invasive plant to Virginia’s noxious weeds list for better regulation. We completed a Virginia Noxious Weed Assessment Tool evaluating non-native plants for their environmental and economic impact. The process for the noxious weed application consists of collecting and summarizing existing scientific knowledge about a target plant (in our case, Asian lady’s thumb) to determine the ecological and economic impact of the plant. The completed application is then submitted to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services who decide whether or not to recommend that the plant be listed as a noxious weed in Virginia (See our blog titled “IGC Fellows get first-hand experience arbitrating scientific knowledge for policymakers” for more information).

The noxious weed application requires interdisciplinary efforts as its two main parts – completing a form and getting it reviewed by Noxious Weeds Advisory Committee – are all about linking ecological knowledge to socioeconomic aspects. Although an assessment mainly needs plant science to understand the ecology of target species, information influences policy and management decisions is not limited to scientific knowledge. Conservation decision-making is a “tournament of value” where diverse participants, including landowners, state government, natural and social scientists in the case of listing noxious weeds, construct pertinent information and negotiate competing values relevant to policy actions and allocation of resources (Robertson & Hull, 2001). By going through the process, our group learned the key factors for the successful interdisciplinary project: Communication, Delegation, and Trust.

Communication

Members of our group have varying levels of knowledge about noxious weeds with diverse disciplinary backgrounds from natural sciences to social sciences. Thus, our first step as an interdisciplinary team was to reach a level of shared understanding about what types and depth of knowledge the noxious weed assessment tool requires and how we could collect and interpret that information to complete the assessment form. We created a shared Google document that contains all the basic information about noxious weed application, including the state’s relevant webpages, both a blank and filled out sample form of the assessment tool, and a spreadsheet helping to calculate whether a candidate species qualifies. This document became a go-to page to revisit whenever there is any confusion or ambiguity regarding the process. As we referenced terminologies and information from the Google document when we needed to communicate or clarify, it constructed a common language across disciplines.

Delegation

We carefully delegated a leading role of each part to the best of effectiveness. Rachel, who has the experience of submitting the noxious weed application before, took a leadership role. She generated the Google document mentioned above and shared detailed information about her previous experience. With her guidance, we broke down the process into searching the literature, reviewing papers individually, putting the information together, arranging and interpreting the collective information to answer the questionnaire in the noxious weed form, and examining the document before submission.

Concurrently, Hye-jeong reviewed the literature on interdisciplinary team-building to reflect our team’s current status and develop future strategies, mainly focused on how to integrate social and natural sciences in a multidisciplinary project as she herself has a social science background. One of the issues often raised about interdisciplinary collaborations is that social scientists mostly play a service role rather than substantially contribute to knowledge production because of disciplinary barriers and hard-soft science dichotomy. However, biological problems, such as invasive species, not only have impacts on ecosystems, they also have substantial human impacts, and require broader perspectives on social systems and human dimensions to address those problems (Freudenburg & Gramling, 2002). As such, we designed our process to involve all team members from different disciplines equally in the paper review and information gathering tasks. This provided us the perfect opportunity to become conversant with other disciplines and share different views on interpreting science papers and research results.

We delegated the literature search task to Vasiliy and Ariel from the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences as they have relevant knowledge about plant science. After papers pertinent to the target plant were collected through literature search by two of them, we collectively started to review papers assigned to each member and pull out information helping to fill out the noxious weed form. We put the information from literature together into the application shared via Google Drive and communicated by commenting on the document. Unlike the literature search part where we delegated the task to the members whose backgrounds are most pertinent to the task, arrangement and interpretation task was delegated to Becky and Lauren from two different science disciplines, School of Plant and Environmental Sciences and Biological Sciences, with the purpose of making the result more universally acceptable across the various disciplines. The process went effectively as each member was not only aware of what tasks they were doing but also understood why those tasks were delegated to them.

Trust

In addition to the carefully delegated tasks, trust also plays a vital role throughout the project. Delegation inevitably requires trust as it is impossible to micro-manage everything each of the group members is doing. For instance, we could have searched and reviewed papers individually and filled out the form by discussing the information line by line together instead of delegating the tasks if we felt we could not trust each other. However, that obviously would have been an inefficient and time-consuming way compared to what we have done. A field guide for collaboration and team science published by National Institutes of Health emphasizes the importance calculus-based trust in interdisciplinary team-building, which is fostered by “having process and procedures in place that guides behavior and actions” (Bennett, Gadlin, & Levine-Finley, 2010). We fostered the calculus-based trust among group members by defining the specific role of each person, yet developing shared an understanding of the process and keeping the procedures open via shared google docs tracking revisions and edits.

Working as an interdisciplinary team is easier said than done, but it is worth trying to cross the disciplinary boundaries. By working together, our noxious weed application integrated not only ample scientific information but also diverse perspectives and values that help to decide whether or not to put resources and efforts into removing invasive species. We believe that this is a small but important step towards solving big problems that the world is facing.

 

Reference

Bennett, LM, Gadlin, H., & Levine-Finley, S. (2010). Collaboration & team science: A Field Guide. Bethesda, MD: National Institutes of Health.

Freudenburg, W. R., & Gramling, R. (2002). Scientific expertise and natural resource decisions: social science participation on interdisciplinary scientific committees. Social Science Quarterly, 83(1), 119-136.

Robertson, D. P., & Hull, R. B. (2001). Beyond biology: toward a more public ecology for conservation. Conservation Biology, 15(4), 970-979.

Why interdisciplinary research matters (2015). Nature News, 525(7569), 305.

 

 
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