Interdisciplinary teams that tango

by Alison Munson

After many years of domain-focused teams in forest ecology, or multidisciplinary «attempts» that never quite congealed, I have finally helped to build two veritable interdisciplinary teams that I consider to be fully functional. My entire career has served as a training ground for team-building, but it has taken almost 30 years to arrive. Whew. This evolution has come with the strong trend towards interdisciplinary work, in my case socio-ecological work, that I find almost mandatory at this stage in my career. It also has come about from top-down research agendas that are encouraging (but not yet sufficiently funding, at least in Canada) a socio-ecological approach. Why is it that only now I find myself embedded in functioning interdisciplinary teams?

Part of it is definitely chemistry. My «best» team is one that has slowly developed over 5-6 years, culminating in an urban ecology group that works as a non-profit, including two academics and two professionals, a landscape architect and an urbanist. The non-profit status materialized only after 4 years of talking and developing our ideas and strategy. We are four that have spent days and days grounding our ideas and developing underlying principles and a cross-disciplinary vision, before launching important projects (first major project this summer). We are still young as a non-profit group but our ideas are mature and this makes all the difference. And, we enjoy each other’s company.

This latter element is not to be underestimated. I have been in random teams, dysfunctional teams, and those that provoked tension and disputes. I’ve also been part of or led  some great, if ephemeral teams in my own domain  andI find that choosing your company is enormous. In my urban team, we respect each other at some high ethereal level that I have rarely attained (disrespect is the antithesis, also in my baggage). We compliment each other (wow), we celebrate when there is cause. There are some arguments (academics not understanding entrepreneur-practitioners and vice versa), but these are aired and we motor on.

The second team is quite young but I think it will do very well, including researchers in anthropology, governance, cultural geography and ecology, as well as residents of a northern community. We are two countries (France and Canada), and three nationalities (aboriginal nation, Quebec, and France), that are trying to open an engagement and action on use of natural resources in the boreal forest, from two very different perspectives (aboriginal and western). What might our own provincial forest managers in Quebec learn from how a large aboriginal family of several generations views and uses its ancestral territorial land base, even when that land base is also subject to company-based forestry? Quite a lot, we hypothesize. But this will take time, patience, listening and engaging that will have to go on much longer than our homeopathic two year funding. Loss of funding is always a threat, so we need to already think about how to conserve this team dynamic with longer term funding. Interdisciplinary work takes more time than domain research, and investment in the social context. I’ve lost great collaborations after 4-5 years, partly due to diverging interests, but also funding fatigue.

However, I find myself more and more willing to go out on an interdisciplinary limb with age. Is it the job security, boredom of my discipline, alarm at impending climate and biodiversity issues intersecting with society? A definite yes to this last, and as well, some greater stimulus and challenge that comes with working across disciplines. Also, now I find it easier to screen for compatibility and chemistry among colleagues and also easier to screen for my own long term interest. So, these two teams are also my future, perhaps even beyond retirement. And that is fun to ponder, going more deeply into the issues over time. Bring it on, continue the dance.

What have been your best interdisciplinary experiences, and why did they work?

Author Biography: Alison Munson is a professor of forest biogeochemistry, working at Université Laval in Quebec, in boreal, temperate and now urban forests. In her sparse spare time she writes fiction. Find her on Twitter: @MunsonAlison.

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