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The Difference Between Multidisciplinary, Interdisciplinary, and Convergence Research

Inside the lab of Dr. Zhen Gu on Centennial Campus. Photo by Marc Hall

Multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and convergence research are some of the most predominate research approaches requested by funding opportunities. The terms can seem interchangeable because of their vague and similar definitions. However, the approaches do have subtle differences that are important when it comes to responding to funding opportunities.  

Multidisciplinary research takes place when faculty from different disciplines work independently on a common problem or research question. In this approach, faculty share research goals and work on the same problem, but look at it from their own discipline’s perspective. The findings from each discipline are supplementary to each other. The advantage to multidisciplinary research is that each aspect can be analyzed by a particular specialty, which is often necessary to answer complex research problems.

There are times when research needs things to go a step farther than multiple disciplines each looking at a problem through their own lens – that is when interdisciplinary research happens. 

A National Academies report titled Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research, defines interdisciplinary research as, “a mode of research by teams or individuals that integrates information, data, techniques, tools, perspectives, concepts, and/or theories from two or more disciplines or bodies of specialized knowledge to advance fundamental understanding or to solve problems whose solutions are beyond the scope of a single discipline or area of research practice.” In other words, rather than working independently, with interdisciplinary research disciplines interact and work collaboratively. 

Interdisciplinary research relies on shared knowledge. When this happens, a fundamental shift can take place over time and a new interdisciplinary field emerges. For example, biochemistry, nanoscience, and neuroscience all emerged as interdisciplinary fields that eventually grew to become their own disciplines. 

Recently, another term – convergence research – is at the forefront of research opportunities coming out of a number of federal agencies. For instance, the National Science Foundation (NSF) named Growing Convergence Research as one of their 10 Big Ideas. 

When defined, convergence research has similarities with multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research. Like interdisciplinary research, convergence research involves integrating disciplines and shifting thought processes, but convergence research takes things even further. In the National Academies report Convergence: Facilitating Transdisciplinary Integration of Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, Engineering and Beyond, convergence research is explained as “a comprehensive synthetic framework for tackling scientific and societal challenges that exist at the interfaces of multiple fields. By merging these diverse areas of expertise in a network of partnerships, convergence stimulates innovation from basic science discovery to translational application.” 

A convergence approach to research integrates insights and approaches from what have historically been distinct scientific and technological disciplines. At its core, two things are necessary in convergence research: 1) It must be deeply collaborative, involving a deep integration of disciplines; and 2) It results in a positive societal impact. 

With small but distinct differences, it may be helpful to think of these three approaches to research as stepping stones that build upon one another. Multidisciplinary research is the building block of both interdisciplinary and convergence research. Likewise, interdisciplinary research has led to convergence research, which goes beyond the integration of disciplines to bring together disciplines that have not historically worked together and adding the component of societal impact. As research approaches evolve, it is likely that in another decade it will be said that convergence research is a stepping stone to the next approach being pursued by researchers and funding agencies.