Breaking Down Silos: Issues in Interdisciplinary Collaboration

Addressing the complex INSSPIRE challenges of establishing sustainable food systems and adapting to climate change necessitates a collaborative, inter (or even trans-)disciplinary approach involving a diverse spectrum of stakeholders, e.g., academics, students, teachers, entrepreneurs, activists, civil society representatives, public servants, to mention just a few. This mantra is consistently echoed in various contexts, from national strategies and recommendations by consultants to academic discourse, newspaper articles, and informal conversations over a cup of coffee, as we collectively grapple with the critical issues facing our society.

The first step is to comprehensively elucidate the identified challenges through the multifaceted lenses of various disciplines and, subsequently, foster interdisciplinary synergies among experts. The assumption is that together, they will jointly work towards the attainment of shared objectives, tacking the societal issues. The subsequent phase involves embracing a transdisciplinary approach that transcends the boundaries of distinct disciplines. Transdisciplinarity necessitates that individuals set aside their disciplinary blinders and strive to perceive the societal challenges from a kind of a helicopter, panoramic perspective.

Metaphorically speaking, the mono-disciplinary approach is akin to ascending a mountain, symbolizing the achievement of our research objectives, by following a familiar path comprised of the theories and methods of our own discipline. However, upon reaching the pick, we often find that other climbers – representing researchers from diverse disciplines – are either already waiting for us at the top of the mountain or are still on their ascent. Therefore, a transdisciplinary approach calls for a truly collaborative ascent where we collectively explore and navigate an uncharted path. Here, the goal is to reach the top, hand by hand with our fellow researchers, through shared endeavours, with each of us contributing equally and collaborating harmoniously.

In this dynamic approach, there is no singular guiding handbook, nor is there a predetermined set of climbing techniques. Instead, it is the specific context that dictates which method proves most suitable and effective in any given circumstances. A truly authentic transdisciplinary approach demands that individuals:

  1. Acknowledge the inherent biases and limitations within their own discipline, working collaboratively to transcend them.
  2. Abandon the egoistic notion that “everyone knows everything” within their discipline.
  3. Move beyond institutional, departmental, laboratory, or group self-interest, rejecting the insular mentality of “cultivating one’s own garden” (as expressed by Voltaire’s Candide at the very end).

As teachers, researchers, and partners in the INSSPIRE project, our focus should not be restricted to examining the challenges of establishing sustainable food systems and adapting to climate change exclusively through the lens of our specific field of expertise. However, how difficult it is to put it in motion? The three challenges outlined above, in my view, are particularly prevalent in academic settings, where we frequently observe a proliferation of narrow specializations within specific disciplines, even to the point of distinct professorships for minutiae, such as “left screw” and “right screw,” as humorously expressed by one of my colleagues. Within this environment, we often witness intense rivalries between closely related labs within the same college or faculty, all vying to assert their suitability and competence in determining what is true or false within their particular field or discipline. We often find ourselves most at ease within the confines of our own disciplinary “gardens,” where we feel secure and capable of offering comments, evaluations, and judgments on the work of others. Those who venture beyond these boundaries to explore the realms of our specific “garden”, metaphorically touching upon our “broccoli and turnip,” are often met with scepticism.

While the INSSPIRE project’s interdisciplinary and cross-sectoral mission might appear self-evident and perhaps even superficial at first glance, its successful implementation is far more intricate and challenging than it initially seems. Moreover, when considering the cross-cultural distinctions, not only between Europe and Africa but also within individual countries on the same continent, we encounter a multifaceted tapestry of diverse individuals, ideas, interests, and preferences. Despite this intricate mix, there remains a shared objective uniting us all – the collective pursuit of safeguarding our world. Whether it’s deemed a stereotype or not, I maintain a strong conviction that it has the potential to propel progress and break down the silos that could separate us.

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