Interdisciplinarity and the MEOPAR Annual Scientific Meeting

I would never like to call myself an ‘expert’ in anything. I saw Donald Trump do it once and it sounded crass and vulgar. I am certainly not an expert in interdisciplinary research by any stretch. But having worked on projects that are to a certain degree interdisciplinary for my entire academic career, I’d hope I at least now know what I don’t know, and know what I wish I knew when I started out.

Parliament Building, Ottawa
Parliament Building, Ottawa

It is this experience that formed the basis of the talk I gave last week, when I travelled to Ottawa in Canada to speak at the Interdisciplinary Forum organised by the Marine Environmental Observation, Prediction and Response (MEOPAR) Network. MEOPAR is funded through the Canadian federal Network of Centres of Excellence Programme, and consists of a group of academic, government science, private sector and civil society partners working together on a suite of projects with the common goal of reducing vulnerability and increasing opportunity in Canada’s coasts and marine environments. This is a massive and noble venture, one that was aptly described in plenary as a “huge vote of confidence from the Canadian public.” Having spent the best part of week in the company of MEOPAR’s members, from an objective outsider perspective I am quite happy to report that this faith seems to be being repaid. This does not just reflect the quality of research being produced, but also the way in which wider society is involved in its undertaking and presentation.

It did not take long for me to start worrying about whether I would have anything useful to say to Canada’s marine scientists. It had barely turned half past eight in the morning and there we were, all seventy of us sitting in room listening to a session about sea fog. I was told that MEOPAR makes a conscious decision to keep everyone in plenary during their science meetings, in order to encourage interaction and prevent fragmentation. Now, when we try this in the UK it tends to result in half of the room sitting with their laptops open responding to emails, and a further quarter taking the opportunity to catch up on sleep. But judging by the breadth of questions asked, it seemed here that most folk were engaging with the presentations. Alongside the technical and scientific questions which I barely understood, there were much more broad-ranging questions. Have you spoken with the helicopter pilots about fog? Have you thought about using historical weather accounts to extend your models further back in history? Is that why fishermen say the fog tastes salty?

Prof Stephanie Chang presenting Resilient Coasts Canada results in plenary

I tried to get my head around why this was. Whether due to training, practice or familiarity, the MEOPAR scientists are really, really good at starting their talks by laying out what they are doing, why this matters to the whole scientific venture, and how this can benefit society as a whole. It doesn’t take long to do that, but very much helps a diverse audience to be able to understand the significance of – and engage with – the underpinning technical research.

It also helps that the MEOPAR researchers are an extremely friendly bunch. I would not like to speculate on why this is, but there seems to be a terrific atmosphere of collegiality among the different people and the various disciplines. This is especially true for the MEOPeers, the collective name given to the postgrads and post-docs working on the MEOPAR projects. On the plane home, I reflected that I don’t think I’ve ever felt so welcome at a conference before. People were constantly coming up to talk to me, inviting me to join them at mealtimes and introducing me to such Canadian delights as poutine and beavertails. And as I’ll mention in a minute, such collegiality spills over into the kind of relations that engender themselves to proper interdisciplinary working.

With Profs Barbara Neis (left) and Jackie Dawson (centre)
With Profs Barbara Neis (left) and Jackie Dawson (centre)

After two days of hearing about people actually doing the kind of interdisciplinary work I dream of doing in Scotland, I woke properly terrified on the morning of my keynote. Fuelled by fear and by a breakfast consisting of a Tim Horton’s doughnut and vanilla latte, I spent the best part of an hour imparting three points onto the assembled audience again and again and again:

  1. Interdisciplinarity doesn’t mean being able to do everything – especially not at the early stage of your academic career. Rather, I see it as using the topic you are working on as a ‘case study’ through which to refine your own specialisation, where the interaction with people from other backgrounds helps to make your own research more robust by pushing you to reflect on your own assumptions and consider different ways of doing things;
  2. Values matter, both your own personal values and the values of your discipline. I’ve been in many projects where it has become apparent that not everyone agrees on what the ultimate purpose of the research is, what the range of possible and acceptable outcomes are, and how the whole process of research ought to be carried out. Getting clarity on what your community’s values are at the outset of the process is an important part of understanding what you all want to achieve by working together, and how you can help each other reach that destination;
  3. Related to the above, personal relationships matter greatly. I have discussed this extensively in a previous post, but I really don’t think we give enough attention to the personal relationships that exist within research teams. Good relations are what are going to give you the understanding, respect and trust to have open and frank discussions within the research team – and believe me, you will need to have them. This is not something we really like to talk about in academia, though, so there’s a big challenge there in instigating conversations about how we all work together as people.

I have to admit that what made me particularly nervous ahead of my talk was that I would be sharing the billing for the day with Professor Jackie Dawson and Professor Barbara Neis, two leading figures in interdisciplinary coastal and marine research in Canada. Given their stature, as someone who is still very much a junior academic I felt properly intimidated. But I needn’t have worried. Both Jackie and Barbara were hugely welcoming and encouraging, and during our briefing meeting the day before I found out we were all facing broadly the same issues in our own research and would be speaking to the same kinds of issues from different perspectives. Perhaps the kindest thing I heard all day came from one of the participants, who remarked that when I talk about my research I “sound like a man who really loves his job.” I am not sure whether this is attributable more to my passion for research or to the sugar content in Tim Horton’s doughnut recipes, but it gave me a nice boost nonetheless (the complement that is, not the doughnut).

Introduction from Michelle Marteleira - Beijing 2015 reunion!
Introduction from Michelle Marteleira – Beijing 2015 reunion!

Whilst at the MEOPAR meeting I also had the opportunity to connect with some folks whose work I have greatly respected and admired for a long time. Namely, the team behind the Fukushima InFORM project, which uses citizen science approaches to track the arrival of Fukushima radionuclides on the west coast of Canada. Jay Cullen and his team provide a real service to Canada and also the whole English-language world through the Fukushima InFORM project. They not only demonstrate how low the levels of Fukushima radiation reaching Canada are, but also make available easy-to-understand summaries of peer-reviewed science relating to the Fukushima radiation situation through their project website. This has been a touchstone for me personally in helping me to understand the physical science basis underpinning my own work, so it was fantastic to finally be able to meet the scientists themselves.

Dr Jonathan Kellogg (centre) explaining Fukushima InFORM results

Lastly, I would like to say a big thank you to Michelle Marteleira from the Resilient Coasts Canada project, who facilitated my involvement after we met at a summer school in Beijing last year and discovered we shared an interest in social science research with coastal communities. (Early-career researchers, this is another reason why you should make time to get to know your peers as well as establishing yourself with the Profs and PIs. In a few years’ time, these are the people that are going to be your Co-Is and collaborators…) The work MEOPAR’s investigators are doing into resilience and vulnerability is exactly the kind of research I’m trying to develop in Scotland and east Asia at the moment, so I very much hope to have further exchange with their Response Core from now on into the future.

By the way, remember that offer I made to swap my UK passport for a Canadian one? It still stands, if anyone wants to take me up on it…


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