Over the years, I have pitched several interdisciplinary research ideas, resulting in publications in reputable environmental and ecology journals and policy briefs. I recently prepared a grant application with people who work in public health, English literature, high school administration, educational psychology, and philosophy.
I have not always been successful in pitching interdisciplinary ideas. I once had an idea to monitor the impact of tobacco farming on the environment in Zimbabwe. Excited, I contacted everyone I knew with the expertise I thought was essential for the project’s success. Nothing came out of it. Here is an example of an email I wrote.
I am starting a research project on the effects of tobacco farming on land cover in Zimbabwe. I need people with expertise in crop science, GIS, economics, geology, social science, analytical chemistry, and forestry. This work will define your career – it will be published in Nature Sustainability, I promise you!!!
Let me know if you are interested.
In this article, I will share tips on pitching an interdisciplinary research idea in an email. I believe the concepts you will learn also apply to oral pitches. They are based on The Pitching Research Template developed by Prof. Robert Faff, Professor of Finance and Director of Research at the University of Queensland Business School (Australia).
What’s your research question?
A good research question is like a treasure map. It details the path you need to take to find answers to or to understand the research problem that intrigues you. The discipline theory, concepts, perspectives, and practices often define the path. However, some problems cannot be defined based on the theories and practices of a single discipline – such problems require interdisciplinary research.
When pitching your research idea, you need to state a specific and relevant research question that addresses a complex problem that cuts across several identified disciplines within or between research domains. While I identified the research disciplines that could contribute, my research question did not cut across different disciplines. Unsurprisingly, economists, crop scientists, and social science could not see the question’s relevance to their discipline.
What’s your motivation?
We all love a good story, and the only thing we love more is to be part of a good story. Imagine my pitch had included this story:
My brother is a tobacco farmer, and recently he asked me whether I would recommend he switch to charcoal for curing his tobacco. He is having difficulty finding trees to burn for the curing process. As an environmental chemist, I know about greenhouse gases emitted when using charcoal or biomass as a source of energy, but I have little knowledge of aspects of land cover, agriculture economics, human behaviour, or crop science, which I hope you will contribute to this research. There seems to be no research on this topic, probably because trees are often viewed as a renewable resource, and I think if we work together on this, we might be able to influence current land use laws in Zimbabwe.
I like this story because it helps you make a human connection with tobacco farmers, highlights your mastery of an identified discipline, and ends by alluding to your autonomy. It is textbook self-determination theory – people are motivated when their needs for connection, competence, and autonomy are met.
What’s your interdisciplinary research idea?
Interdisciplinary research ideas normally focus on complex social, environmental, health, technology, and policy issues or strengthen the competencies of an academic discipline by developing tools, theories, or practices that could be used to address new issues. Therefore, your pitch should state how you want to address a problem or how you want to develop competencies.
My story about my brother highlighted the key concepts I believed needed to be considered when addressing the problem – greenhouse gas emission, tree cover, and energy generation. One can use these concepts to identify the key theories, terminologies, data, and tools required to understand and/or address the problem in an interdisciplinary manner (1).
In my story, I highlighted the key concepts, i.e., greenhouse gas emission, tree cover, and energy generation. One can use these concepts to identify the key theories, terminologies, data, and tools required to understand and/or address the problem in an interdisciplinary manner.
What’s the novelty and significance of the research idea?
In interdisciplinary research, the pitched research should integrate disciplines in a manner that guarantees new data, interpretations, or analyses that offer new insights into a research problem or phenomenon are produced. The pitch should state how the proposed interdisciplinary research will contribute to scientific progress.
It follows then that before pitching interdisciplinary research, you need to conduct a literature search to identify what is known and what remains unknown or understudied. You must also show why we should care about that particular knowledge gap. For example, in my story above, I share how the results will influence policy – this shows the significance and relevance of the pitched interdisciplinary research project.
When I receive a pitch for interdisciplinary research, I want to know the type and amount of contribution expected from me before committing.
What’s my contribution?
When I receive a pitch for interdisciplinary research, I want to know the type and amount of contribution expected from me before committing. This helps me to see whether the project aligns with my personal goals, time commitment, and intrinsic values.
Each person you want to draw expertise from will make different contributions. You must write to that person individually, not in a mass email, and state clearly the contributions you expect from them. If the work is going to be published, you should state how the author list will be compiled. This will help you avoid conflicts in the future.
Here is an example of a multidisciplinary pitch based on my failed example:
Dear Dr. X
I recently came across your work on urbanization in tropical regions as a driver of deforestation, were you used remote sensing, and it was a fascinating read. I am starting a research project on the effects of tobacco farming on land cover in Zimbabwe.
My brother is a tobacco farmer, and recently he asked me whether I would recommend he switch to charcoal for curing his tobacco. He is having difficulty finding trees to burn for the curing process. As an environmental chemist, I know about greenhouse gases emitted when using charcoal or biomass as a source of energy, but I have little knowledge of land cover, agriculture economics, human behaviour, or crop science.
I believe the GIS methodology you used in the paper on urbanization and deforestation could be useful in understanding the role of tobacco farming in deforestation. I was hoping you could join me in this project, and your role will be to assess land cover using GIS.You will also be expected to contribute to discussions on developing an economic model led by Dr. Y, an expert in agriculture economics. I think if we work together on this, we might be able to influence current land use laws in Zimbabwe.
The project is expected to take six months and end with submitting a research paper and preparing a policy brief.
I look forward to hearing from you.
- Cohen Miller, A. S., & Pate, E. (2019). A Model for Developing Interdisciplinary Research Theoretical Frameworks. In: The Qualitative Report. Nova Southeastern University. https://doi.org/10.46743/2160-3715/2019.3558
Edmond Sanganyado is a senior lecturer in Environmental Forensics at Northumbria University, UK. Previously, he was an associate professor at Shantou University, China. He holds a Ph.D. in Environmental Toxicology from the University of California Riverside, USA, and a BSc (Hons) in Applied Chemistry from the National University of Science and Technology, Zimbabwe. He is interested in understanding the behaviour of chemicals in the environment, and his primary goal is to develop techniques for mitigating chemical pollution. Edmond is associate editor of Frontiers in Water, academic editor of PLoS ONE and PeerJ, and editorial board member of Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management, BMC Chemistry and Communications Earth & Environment. He is a member of the Zimbabwe Young Academy of Sciences and the Global Young Academy. Edmond was elected as a Fellow of the Institution of Environmental Science in recognition of his outstanding contributions to environmental science and sustainability.