Interdisciplinary research responds to realistic needs

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2021-11-08

Since the 20th century, the development patterns and operating mechanisms of human society have continuously altered in light of the in-depth advancement of economic globalization, informatization, and networking. Increasingly complex scientific and technological applications and economic and social problems have diversified practical challenges. In this context, the possibility that a single discipline is able to independently solve major practical problems is waning. 

Purpose and value

Interdisciplinary research is not an end in itself, but aimed at addressing complex systemic problems, said Zhang Wei, deputy director of the Institute of China’s Science, Technology and Education Policy at Zhejiang University. In the development history and evolutionary line of interdisciplinary research, such emerging fields as manned spaceflight, deep-sea exploration, clean energy, artificial intelligence, and quantum information all fall into the sphere of multidisciplinary research, which has become a pivotal method to spur scientific innovation.

According to Zou Nongjian, a distinguished professor with Nanjing Xiaozhuang University, the history of scientific development shows that major scientific breakthroughs, new growth points, and even the emergence of new disciplines are frequently realized by means of the intersection and infiltration of different disciplines. Examples can be found in the Nobel Prize in the natural sciences in the 20th century. Winning the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1972, the theory of superconductivity or the BCS theory was jointly developed by John Bardeen, who was proficient in solid-state physics, and Leon Cooper and John Schrieffer, masters of quantum field theory and mathematical physics methods.

Chen Yunsong, a professor from the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Nanjing University, noted the three values of cross-disciplinary studies—expanding the academic domain, updating research paradigms, and serving society. First of all, whether it is the “internal crossover” of social sciences and humanities, or the “external crossover” with natural sciences, the research vision and mentality of the original discipline can get inspired and activated by the disciplines it intersects with, thereby deriving new research fields. Secondly, the research paradigms of the original disciplines can realize systematic expansion and improvement through intersecting and integrating frontier areas. Finally, the fusion of respective disciplinary advantages and even the use of natural science research methods and mindset can serve the country’s top priorities better and more accurately.

Problem-oriented collaborative research

Liu Zhonglin, a professor from the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Science and Technology of China, said that the transition from the “single-disciplinary paradigm” to the “interdisciplinary paradigm” is a revolution in the fields of scientific research, education, and management. Deeper development is required in terms of the general theories and methods of transdisciplinary studies, the cultivation of specialized versatile talent, and the establishment of horizontal interdisciplinary management systems.

According to Wang Xiaoguang, deputy dean of the School of Information Management at Wuhan University, well-performed interdisciplinary research is usually teamwork-based and intricate problem-driven studies that cannot be unraveled by single disciplinary knowledge. Before doing interdisciplinary research, one needs to first become an expert in a certain traditional discipline, or choose a specific discipline as a foothold. Then, driven by problems, take the initiative to step into an emerging interdisciplinary field. The process demands forming cooperative teams with scholars from other disciplines and carrying out collaborative research, thereby stimulating the expansion and substantive development of an emerging interdisciplinary field.

In the new journey of building a great modern socialist country in all respects, the problems we encounter in promoting high-quality economic and social development are often major complicated systematic problems, which call for collaborative innovation development and cross-disciplinary research. Interdisciplinary research must be strategy-oriented, goal-oriented, and problem-oriented, making arrangements around national science and technology strategic areas. Additionally, efforts are necessary to deepen collaboration among enterprises, universities, and research institutes and smooth the complete innovation chain running from basic research to applied research, promoting the integrated development of the innovation chain, talent chain, and industrial chain. Zhang lauded the Frontier Science Center, planned by the Ministry of Education during the 14th Five-Year Plan period (2021–25), as a paragon of the interdisciplinary research model.

Interdisciplinary research should be closely connected with complex social needs and major practical needs, Zhang continued. It is necessary to fully exploit the advantages of the new system concentrating nationwide effort and resources on key national sci-tech undertakings, in order to serve major national strategies such as “intensifying national strategic strength in science and technology,” “peaking carbon emissions and achieving carbon neutrality,” “healthy China,” and “rural vitalization.” Universities under the “double first-class” initiative should be bases to build a batch of institutions for scientific research that are cross-regional, cross-department, cross-industry, cross-university, and cross-faculty.

The transformation of interdisciplinary concepts will create new momentum and new space for the renaissance of Chinese culture that is inherently interdisciplinary, ushering in an era of integrating Chinese and Western cultures, and technology and humanities. Liu suggested starting from the construction of “ontology” to deepen comprehensive cross-disciplinary research with modern philosophy of science, aesthetics, ethics, logic, brain science, psychology, etc. vigorously driving the comprehensive disciplinary construction in line with China’s national conditions and with the characteristics of Chinese academic development.

Editor:Yu Hui

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