Friday, August 27, 2010

Interdisciplinary collaboration

Given the frequency with which my thoughts have turned to this topic in the past 30+ years, I'm somewhat surprised to note that I've not expounded on this before in a blog or Web essay. Perhaps I have and simply lost track of it. Anyway, I'll try to keep this short - a colleague has noted recently that the so-called "National" Weather Center (NWC) here in Norman has failed to become a paragon of inter-organizational communication and collaboration. This comes as no surprise to me.

Back before the new building, when the OU School of Meteorology (OU SoM) and the NOAA components in Norman still were separated by about 4 miles, collaboration was quite evidently infrequent. This had come as a huge surprise to young, idealistic me when I first arrived in Norman for grad school (in 1967) - not only was collaboration infrequent, but there was a strong miasma of mutual disrespect. These attitudes were still firmly in place when I returned to NSSL in 1986 after having been gone for 10 years. I believe them to have persisted to this very day, and that they will continue indefinitely unless something radically different happens. I won't go into all the details here, for the sake of brevity and to avoid plowing up old ground - but the history of disrespect is real and can't be swept under the rug. Old wounds still fester and poison the air. Dismissing this as "the past" (as has been done by some unnamed NWC unit managers) is simply unmindful of our history, and so the mistakes of the past continue to be made over and over again.

The issues that separated the OU SoM and NOAA organizations in 1967 (and before) have not changed. I believed at the time the new building was being proposed that 4 miles separating the units was not the cause of the general absence of collaboration, so moving the units together would not result in the sudden dawn of a new day with regard to their interaction. Lo, and behold, it seems my forecast was correct.

Considering in the broadest possible perspective, there's virtually nothing that management can do to encourage interdisciplinary collaboration. They can discourage it, but they can't encourage it. Why? Because scientific collaboration comes out of two things not in their control:

1. Mutual respect between (among) the potential collaborators
2. Recognition of a convergence of interest around some project that would advance both sides

Collaboration comes from the bottom up, and can't be imposed from the top down. When the desire for collaboration is mutual and strong, management can place barriers in front of it or they can encourage it, but mere distance won't be an issue if the potential collaborators are determined to make something happen. Putting people together in close proximity doesn't have any necessary impact on this "organic" growth of mutual self-interest. It might make some aspects of it slightly easier, but it doesn't create a desire for collaboration in any way. If collaboration was the justification for building the NWC edifice, then it was built on a fallacy, and is now living a lie: the lie that it representing any significant change in the collaboration among its units.

The general absence of mutual respect in the Norman weather community has virtually precluded widespread collaboration here for as long as I can remember. This doesn't mean that isolated incidences of collaboration have not sprung up. For instance, as of this moment, I have a wonderfully productive ongoing collaboration with two OU SoM faculty: Profs. Lance Leslie and Michael Richman. But as a "community" we have been and continue to be a failure with regard to mutualism.

In an even broader sphere, true interdisciplinary collaboration (e.g., between meteorologists and sociologists) is uncommon for several reasons:

1. Mutual disrespect and misunderstanding
2. An inability to recognize and seize upon instances of convergent interests
3. An absence of funding support for interdisciplinary projects
4. Career advancement in specialized disciplines typically is not enhanced by interdisciplinary projects
5. Bureaucratic barriers to interdisiplinarity

Interdisciplinarity is inevitably an orphan. Most everyone pays it lip service, but whenever and wherever individuals try to advance it, they're blocked by the narrow-mindedness and parsimony of their disciplinary peers and supervisors. Why waste time and resources messing around with them (in a tone with a clear implication of contempt for them), when we have so much to do in our own sphere?

Distance doesn't preclude collaboration. Proximity doesn't guarantee it. When collaboration does occur, it can be a very rewarding experience, no matter what it might or might not do for your career. In fact, if advancement of your career is your primary goal, then .. you're not very committed to your profession. Hmmmmm ...


Lak said...

So, now you have me curious. What's the cause of this mutual disrespect ... afraid I got here too late to know ... i.e. what's the water the bridge?

Chuck Doswell said...

I think if you look around the NWC and watch what's happening, you can still see in action what I saw. But that means you have to wander about and engage in conversations with those outside of your immediate work sphere. I've made it habit to do this for years ... and I'm now finding barriers to this being erected, which is only going to exacerbate the problem.

I'm going to avoid blaming one side or the other - a big part of this are the self-erected barriers between university faculty, and NOAA scientists and forecasters. There's a general tendency that I've written about elsewhere to disrespect anyone not of your ilk, to see their work as easy, sloppy and not very worthwhile. This also applied to non-meteorologists ...

I'm just not going to dredge up any of the issues involving me personally. My comments are generic because I see what has happened to me as symptomatic of this more general malaise.

===== Roger ===== said...

The lack of *systematic* collaboration is palpable, real and not very encouraging. Having more and more locked doors due to "security" requirements, and perhaps other reasons upon which we only can speculate, cannot help. I agree that there is a general malaise.

That said, the patient isn't dead, or even comatose. There are still new connections forming behind the scenes between the OU and governmental realms, however small and few they may be. I'm fortunate enough this semester to be helping to make a couple of them, in the form of a student internship and a separate student advisory, and also, helping to make some connections between some OU folks' CSTAR proposals and meteorologists in my own unnamed workplace. I'm certainly not the only one trying to keep a lifeline threaded beneath those locked doors. The point is: Be careful not to generalize that collaboration between academia and the public sector is doomed at Battlestar Norman, or that hope is lost. There is a pulse, even though the patient of collaboration is not fully well.

Jim LaDue said...

I agree with Roger. Since I moved into the NWC, my collaborations with other groups has increased quite a bit. I've been collaborating with NSSL, SPC, the SOM, CAPS, the ROC, etc. I don't discount your observations at all but I believe my outlook on the NWC is brighter than yours. Nevertheless, I've also seen the disrespect that you observe and our full potential is being truncated.