Interdisciplinarity in science: Chances and Problems

Climate science has a huge advantage, as it covers so many disciplines, which all have to interact to yield a proper result. May it be meteorology, oceanography, glaciology and geophysics as the main physical subjects working on the issue, but are just the first layer. Below it you find maths, physics, chemistry and biology as the fundamental sciences on which these subjects base. And then there are all the auxiliary subjects like geology or computer science, which are highly interacting with climate science community. But this advantage has also its weak spots, as working with many disciplines lead also to many problems in the daily work.

One point are the different vocabularies these fields use. For the same thing or methodology, each discipline has its own description. This is also true for subjects which are very similar, like meteorology and oceanography, which share a lot of common ground, but have developed in the past decades in different directions. To illustrate that I usually illustrate this with a saying: “When you have a three year interdisciplinary project, you spend the first two years with writing a dictionary to communicate and in the third you can start to work.” This is of cause a massive exaggeration, but it shows that even after a long time working together it happens that the researcher from different fields still are not used to the others researchers views and language. And once again, for outsiders these fields are hardly different disciplines, we are not talking about interaction between e.g. social science and physics, where these problems might be much more severe.

To address this many study programmes have moved in the past years from a pure subject-based courses to interdisciplinary ones. The idea is that when students learn the different subjects from the start, the interdisciplinary science gets easier for the next generation. Because let’s face it, the future will be interdisciplinary, all the funding agencies require it and the pure subject based research seems to be mostly covered in the past. But there will be also the problems coming up from this approach. Coming from only one subject in the undergrad and graduate programme gives you a real expertise in this one subject. Having that background with some effort it is possible to translate the approaches of the other disciplines into your own language and then you are able to work with them like they are your own. It needs time, but it is at least possible. When the interdisciplinary study programmes fail to cover the whole extend of a single subject, but just parts of it in several disciplines, it might lead to problems in this approach. Yes, you might be fit in the basics of several fields, but when something unknown comes along the risk is there that you cannot bring it back to your own turf to work with it. It does not mean that it has to be this way, but it requires a lot of care when study programs are developed for the future.

So what is my own way? Well, I still went to a one subject study course (meteorology), sure you had your minors, but in the end it was more or less a training for translation of other fields into your own. My graduate project was together with computer scientists, my first postgrad with geodesist and geologist. Nowadays I work mainly with oceanographers. Of cause I encounter some problems within communication, because in some cases I miss some basics, but on the other side I do exactly the above described translation on a daily basis. As everyone, I am a bit biased towards the way I took myself, so I see the risks as well as the chances for the new approaches. We will see in the next decade, whether they will be successful and bring the science effectively forward, because that is in the end the only thing that counts.

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UK Sea Level Science Meeting

At the end of last week the NOC in Liverpool invited the UK communities around sea level science to a meeting to honour Phil Woodworth’s retirement. After the 80th-birthday of the PSMSL two years ago, this was the second time in quick succession to get the people together and discuss the current developments in the field. Sea level itself is a highly diverse topic, which was well represented at that meeting.

It started with some talks on the impact of sea level change and storm surges. A focus therein was the translation of the science to the actions on the ground. After the first poster session the past sea-level, especially during the Holocene got their attention. In this part the connection between geodesy, geology and oceanography gives the field a very interesting interdisciplinary touch. All communities have to work together and understand each other to gain further ground in the research on this topic. A big point is therein the uncertainty of models and observations, which was widely presented and discussed in the talks and the posters.

My poster at the meeting

My poster at the meeting

The presentations ended with an overview over the observational techniques, mainly coastal measurements with the satellites. In these fields large steps forward were made in the past years, which brings hope to the development of better opportunities to compare satellite measurements with the readings of tide gauges. Some remarks from the host and a nice conference dinner with many discussions lead to the end the first day.

The second day kicked of with the main source of sea level change, the ice. The focus was especially set on the ice sheets on Antarctica and their monitoring with satellite altimetry. Ocean dynamics and their influence on sea level followed next. The speakers showed that the influence of this part has still many potentials for future research. The final topic was the projections of future sea level change. This controversial topic with its two main approaches, the classical modeling and the semi-empirical methods, lead to many discussions.

All in all it was a great meeting, which brought a good overview on the many different facets of the field. The great discussions around the meeting helped to broaden the understanding for everyone within this interdisciplinary community. Certainly the field will still allow for huge advances in the future, which will require the introduction of new techniques, great ideas and especially the work across the traditional boarders of the research fields.

Data peer review paper background: Why quality is a dicisive information for data?

Using information on data quality is nothing new. A typical way to do it is by the uncertainty of the data, which gave different data points in many different data analysis methods something like a weighting. It is essential to know, which data points or parts can be believed and which are probably questionable. To help data reusers with this, a lot of datasets contain flags. They indicate when problems occurred during the measurement or when a quality control method raised doubts. Every scientist who analyses data has to look after this information, and is desperate to know whether they explain for him/her the reason, why for example some points do not fit into the analysis of the rest of the dataset.

By the institutionalised publication of data, the estimation of data quality gets to a new level. The reason behind this is that published data is not only used by the scientists, who are well aware of the specific field, but also by others. This interdisciplinary environment is a chance, but also a thread. The chances can be seen by new synergies, bringing new views to a field and even more the huge opportunities of new dataset combination. In opposite to this the risks are the possible misunderstandings and misinterpretations of datasets and the belief that published datasets are ideal. The risks can at best countered by a proper documentation of the datasets. Therefore is the aim of a data peer review to guarantee the technical quality (like readability) of the dataset a good documentation. This is even more important since the datasets itself should not be changed at all. Continue reading