Have you ever been stuck with a set of results you didn't know how to interpret? It happened to me when I was in graduate school. I did some analytical chemistry experiments and found an interesting trend. I read research papers on the topic but couldn't find an explanation of what I had found.
I got my breakthrough during a molecular biology practical where I served as a teaching assistant. While explaining to students the principles of DNA extraction, I got my eureka moment. I couldn't wait for the practical session to end. The phenomenon I observed in my analytical chemistry experiment was common in molecular biology.
I managed to interpret my results when I stepped out of my primary discipline and viewed the problem through a molecular biology lens. My experience is best captured by a Japanese proverb believed to be based on a fable by the Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zhou – "A frog in the well knows nothing of the great ocean."
Sadly, most researchers from countries suffering the most from these global challenges do not know how they can step outside their wells.
Global challenges such as hunger, poverty, diseases, and inequality will not be solved by confining ourselves to our academic disciplines. Sadly, most researchers from countries suffering the most from these global challenges do not know how they can step outside their wells. Their countries do not have active national platforms for connecting researchers, and they remain stuck without a single sea turtle to tell them about the great ocean.
In this post, I will provide you with five guidelines on how to establish a multidisciplinary research network. My tips are grounded in Pryor’s 5P model for strategic implementation, because I believe multidisciplinary network building is a strategic planning skill.
What is Pryor's 5P model, and how can it help in building multidisciplinary networks?
Pryor's 5P model helps leaders connect their strategy (i.e., Purpose) to the network's structure (i.e., Principles, covering the internal structures, while Processes focus on external structures) while being mindful of the influence of the structure on the behavior of the network's participants (i.e., People) and consistently allowing the participants to assess the extent of their contributions (i.e., Performance).
What is the Purpose of your multidisciplinary network?
People are often willing to join networks that have a clarity of purpose. I learned this the hard way when I was elected President of the Zimbabwe Young Academy of Sciences. I had difficulty recruiting new members or inviting people to participate in our networking events. To solve this problem, my team developed resources that included all key elements of our intention – our vision, mission, and objectives.
People stay in networks with clearly defined principles because they want to know what they're committing to – the beliefs, the attitudes, and the values.
What are the Principles of your multidisciplinary network?
People stay in networks with clearly defined principles because they want to know what they're committing to – the beliefs, the attitudes, and the values. I believe principles are like the wings of an airplane; they do not only provide the lift required to fly but also offer direction to the whole craft. Principles guide how the multidisciplinary network will conduct research.
Several principles have been proposed as foundational to most multi-disciplinary networks. My favorites are the six principles of multidisciplinary research networks by Building Research Capacity for sustainable water and food security In the drylands of sub-Saharan Africa program (BRECcIA) and the principles for knowledge co-production in sustainability research.
How we demonstrated these principles
Value other disciplines
Created multidisciplinary working groups composed of people from different disciplines
Incorporate stakeholder perspectives and value dimensions
Engaged in multistakeholder panel discussions
Understand local context
Invested in understanding local problems
Created WhatsApp group for informal and formal conversations
Creative and just dissemination
Published policy briefs, gave media interviews, and produced short audio files
Build multi-disciplinary learning environments
Organized workshops, webinars, and panel discussions
Focused on addressing local problems and refined them together with the participants
What are the Processes used by the multi-disciplinary network?
One of the mistakes I made while leading a multidisciplinary network was thinking that stating the procedures and assigning responsibilities was enough for us to get the project going. After a month or two, the network quietly died, and my efforts to resuscitate were fruitless. People knew what they needed to do but had no idea where we were as a group.
Processes allow people to see where they are within the context of the overall network. At the Zimbabwe Young Academy of Sciences, we are trying to address this issue by holding monthly meetings and regularly informing members about the organization structures of all our multidisciplinary working groups.
Every organization is only as good as its weakest member. When building a multidisciplinary research network, you must identify the skills your members need to succeed.
Who are the People you're going to develop, and how?
Every organization is only as good as its weakest member. When establishing a multidisciplinary research network, you must identify the skills your members need to succeed. It is your responsibility to ensure that each member has the skills and resources they need to perform better. Hence, you may need to secure grants to train your members, engage the community, or conduct research.
In addition to providing training, members must feel valued and noticed. This can be achieved easily by establishing a rewards and recognition program. A simple acknowledgement of service in a monthly newsletter or email can go a long way in motivating the network. Members also need to be properly accredited in publications that result from the research work.
How do you measure the Performance of the multidisciplinary network?
How will you determine whether your multidisciplinary research network is progressing well or has accomplished its task? Members of your network want to know whether their individual activities contribute significantly to the network’s goals and what they can do to secure improvements. Having clear performance goals makes it easier to provide feedback to your network.
I agree with Pryor et al.'s (2019) statement, “Measurements are not required to be complex but should be relevant, properly aligned with the relevant strategic initiatives, and designed to help process owners understand how the process works and show where improvements need to be made.” Members of your research network are the process owners. They need to know how your processes work and should know where the process or the person needs to improve.
Edmond Sanganyado is associate editor of Forensic Science International: Animals and Environments and an editorial board member of Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management. He is a member of the Zimbabwe Young Academy of Sciences and of 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.