The recipe for success in an interdisciplinary research proposal
Seamlessly integrating areas of expertise is key to developing an interdisciplinary research idea.
Solving many of the world’s most pressing challenges demands the melding of various spheres of scientific knowledge. It is paramount to conduct research through rewarding interdisciplinary collaborations.
During the three decades of her academic career, Ikue Mori, a professor of molecular neurobiology at Nagoya University in Japan, has witnessed changes in how scientists are influenced by research outside their disciplines. “As scientists are deeply focused on very niche areas, academia inherently has a structure that makes it difficult for interdisciplinary research ideas to arise spontaneously,” says Mori. “Paradoxically, the internet age may have exacerbated this in some ways, as the ability to perform targeted searches can reduce opportunities for chance encounters with researchers outside one’s realm of interest.”
The Interstellar Initiative, co-organized by the Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development (AMED) and the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS), is helping to foster collaboration skills for the next generation of academic leaders. Facilitation by mentors is crucial in helping early-career researchers carry collaboration forward.
The Interstellar Initiative provides early-career investigators from several disciplines — such as clinical research, life science, physical science, technology, and allied health — an opportunity to develop an interdisciplinary research proposal under the guidance of leading experts. Selected through a competitive application process, participants are assembled into ‘dream teams’ of three and brainstorm research ideas in frontier areas of science that are seeking to tackle the most critical biomedical challenges such as healthy longevity. Throughout the program’s duration, the teams refine their ideas with the aim of submitting research proposals to funding agencies.
“I see this as providing a rare, valuable experience especially in a Japanese research context, because early-career investigators are not truly independent,” explains Mori, who is also a program officer and a mentor for the Interstellar Initiative. “Since Japanese laboratories are typically led by senior faculty, junior faculty members often don’t venture outside their niche to seek collaborative opportunities, let alone international or interdisciplinary ones.”
The elements of a successful proposal
Every year, Mori assesses more than a thousand research proposals, ranging from topics in her area of expertise to ones that cross typical academic boundaries, such as those developed in the Interstellar Initiative. “When it comes to interdisciplinary research, the best proposals link seamlessly between the researchers’ areas of specialty,” she says. “In such proposals, the boundaries of each discipline merge so well that it’s nearly impossible for reviewers to tease apart which part of the proposal would be undertaken by a particular researcher.”
Mori says that well-integrated proposals have a logical flow that makes reviewers forget the study is interdisciplinary. “For example, a study may draw on one researcher’s ability to conduct experiments in smaller model organisms, and then move on to a new phase in which the results are validated on larger organisms, by leveraging the expertise of another researcher.”
Effective teamwork is critical for developing such proposals. As a mentor for the Interstellar Initiative, Mori has seen groups struggle to find common ground, especially when kicking off the collaboration. Advice from mentors on how to collaborate — more so than on the research idea — has helped to catalyze inspiration for Interstellar teams.
“Some teams yield to each other too much from the beginning so as to not kill ideas from others,” says Mori. “In these circumstances, I advise team members to be more assertive about their research interests and ambitions. Some team members have unpublished work in progress that, when shared with the team, suddenly get ideas rolling. At the end of the day, it boils down to good communication.”
In contrast, other teams grapple with balance when one team member is passionate about an idea in their area of expertise. “When this happens, the other two members essentially just play supporting roles in the study. Alternatively, sometimes all three members stay fixated on their own research passions, in which case the proposal contains three disconnected endeavors, and these are bound to fail,” says Mori. “Generally, however, when mentors point out that the expertise of some members is underrepresented, the participants are able to take a step back, examine their proposal objectively, and correct the course of the collaboration.”
Keeping it realistic
Another key for developing successful research proposals is determining a realistic scope. As interdisciplinary research often addresses unexplored challenges, the scope of the research is prone to becoming vague or overly ambitious. “Proposals are meant to be realistic plans that will conclude in three years,” says Mori. “While it’s important to have a personal, long-term vision, researchers submitting interdisciplinary proposals should always remember to evaluate the current state of knowledge from an objective standpoint and to determine what is feasible.”
Developing experience as a grant reviewer may help researchers become adept at developing a compelling interdisciplinary research proposal, since it is useful for gaining perspective, Mori says “Being a reviewer allows researchers to witness first-hand how teams come together for new ideas,” says Mori. “It’s a great step forward for junior researchers who aspire to transition to the senior level.”
To find out more about the Interstellar Initiative Program, see here.
AMED is seeking experienced international researchers to review grant proposals submitted to AMED. If you are interested in becoming a grant reviewer, find out more here.
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