Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Member Blog on the 2019 Developing Multidisciplinary Leaders Workshop

Written by: Diogo Souza Monteiro, Norbert Wilson, and David Zilberman

Most agricultural and resource economics departments belong to faculties or a college of Life Science. Some of the critical challenges of our time (climate change, renewable energy, sustainable food production, and food security) can only be tackled bringing together experts from different backgrounds and complementary expertise and skill sets. We work with colleagues from other disciplines. Some of our most impactful work merged economic concepts and ideas with knowledge and models from other areas fields of study, to solve some of the most important problems of present day. At the same time, economic training mostly emphasized concepts and principles, we are frequently evaluated by economists and our journals weigh heavily on economic sophistication. Young and mid-career scientists are challenged to address multi-disciplinary problems and develop multi-disciplinary agendas while at the same time meeting high quality economic research standards.

To address this problem, the AAEA Mentorship Committee proposed to organize a workshop to inspire Mid-Career colleagues to reflect on how to effectively lead teaching, research and outreach multi-disciplinary teams. This proposal was embraced and endorsed by the Mentorship Committee and the Board of AAEA. The workshop was held June 12-14, 2019, at Tufts University in Boston and joined 35 speakers and participants.

The workshop was structured in 5 main sessions covering: publishing, building multi-disciplinary collaborations, teaching and communication, writing grants, and reflecting on the multidisciplinary enterprise. The first session on publishing highlighted one of the contractions of modern academia. While funding bodies and several national and international organizations call for the integration of disciplines teams to tackle societal problems, the building block of most universities are disciplinary department. Institutions rely mostly on journals as the basis for evaluation of tenure and professorship progressions. In the case of agricultural economics, we have another dilemma: what are we? Some colleagues argued that agricultural economists are economists who work on agriculture. Therefore, the flagship journal of the discipline, The American Journal of Agricultural Economics (AJAE), has to consist on economic approach and rigor. This doesn’t mean that the research cannot be multi-disciplinary, but it does mean that there needs to be an emphasis on an economic problem, and a contribution to the economic literature. The discussion suggested that there are some who view agricultural economics as an integrating discipline, and in selection of manuscripts for publication in major agricultural and applied economic journals relevance and problem solving should get as much weight as economic rigor.

Another session reflected and shared on building multi-disciplinary collaborations. Collaborating across disciplines requires opportunism, openness, courage and humility. It is difficult to conduct multi-disciplinary research but when opportunities emerge then one needs to be opportunistic and a risk taker. Multi-disciplinary research is especially risky in the beginning of the career, and all speakers in this session suggested that one needs to have a solid foundation in their discipline before venturing into others. The panelist also concurred that, insofar the disciplinary contribution and outputs is clearly recognized, there is no reason why multi-disciplinary collaborations cannot start before tenure. Furthermore, the most departments recognize contributions in multi-disciplinary outlets such as Nature, Science, or even Nature, Energy or Nature Plants in a portfolio towards tenure.

Teaching and communicating multi-disciplinary outputs to stakeholders is imperative but trying. Teachers are challenged to strike a good balance between breadth across disciplines and depth of knowledge. They need to figure out how much disciplinary knowledge students need and how to integrate knowledge across disciplines. Flexibility, patience, inclusion, generosity, simplicity, clarity, focus, and common sense are the ingredients for successful multi-disciplinary programs. Design of such programs requires communication and mutual respect across disciplines, with emphasis on the need and capacity of the learners.  Modern media tools can be very effective to enhance the quality of multidisciplinary programs. It is especially effective in communicating engineering and scientific knowledge and obtaining feedback from the students. The notion of life-long learning expands the range of potential students for multi-disciplinary research, and funders increase their opportunities to fund outreach programs that educate a diverse range of stakeholders.

On the second day the workshop had two sessions, the first one focused on Grant Writing. The key to success is to understand what the funders want, build a team that can work together and has complementary expertise. While diversity is often required, it is important the partners from different disciplines share a common vision. Then, it is important to give the team time to build the relationships and the proposal. It is highly commended to contact the funders and understand what they want. Also, it is important to write clearly for a non-specialist audience, as often the panel’s members don’t have the expertise and they are time pressured. Thus, it is critical to write for the reviewer, convincing her of the value of the research and the complementary of the team. Evaluation panel members are becoming savvier and required to identify the authenticity of a multi-disciplinary project proposal. They are able to identify whether the team is fully integrate and as a clear pathway to innovation or, rather, whether the team is cobbled together to try to get some money for the co-investigators to pursue individual projects. In short, there are increasing opportunities to bid for large multi-disciplinary. But a successful bid for such projects requires building a team with many disciplines, where the contribution of each member is clear and the roles of each member are well defined, and there is a comradery that allows for fair negotiation. A good grant has to follow the vision of the funding agencies and meet specified criteria for success. Therefore, reading and understanding the purpose of the funds is a key starting point. The proposal should provide a complete picture where the whole is greater than the parts by using flowcharts and visual devices to show how all the parts interact to create a reasonable and exciting plan.

In the final session of the workshop we learned from the career long experiences of some of our most esteemed colleagues. One of the speakers invited us to think of the long game, in other words understand that we have long careers and that we need to slowly, patiently and persistently build our expertise and network within and across disciplines. It is important to volunteer to teach small courses on our discipline to colleagues from other areas or stakeholders, as it gives as a platform to show our expertise and educate other on what we can bring to a project or collaboration. It is also critical to learn to be an active listener and be willing to admit ignorance. Another colleague in the final session taught us that the different disciplines are living in different worlds and have different interpretations of key concepts. For example, for public health scientists, a model is a creature like a mouse that is used for experimentation, and what we call a model is a conceptual framework. Other disciplines may not understand economics, and see economists as a glorified accountant, unaware of the capacity of an economist’s capacity to allocate resources, and develop institutions and policies to implement programs. Introducing basic concepts of irrigation and pest management in developing models to assess adoption of technology and optimized application of pesticides. Interaction with scientists helped to enrich the models and make them more relevant, and helped to obtain new sources of finding. More importantly, interactions with members of other disciplines and awareness of development through exposure to news and general media helps to identify new research and funding opportunities.

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