How does working across disciplines increase the potential of successful research outcomes? How and why should the scientific community implement earnest cross-discipline research? In the second episode of “In Conversation,” Nature Editor in Chief Magdalena Skipper talks with Professor David Nabarro, (Special Envoy of WHO Director General on COVID-19) about the importance of interdisciplinarity, why we need to remember science is not immutable, how diversity can increase the potential for successful research outcomes and the approaches that he and his group are employing to promote diverse participation.
Professor Nabarro is best known as Special Envoy on COVID-19 for the World Health Organization (WHO). He is also the Co-director for the Institute of Global Health and Innovation at Imperial College, London and the Strategic Director for 4SD (Skills, Systems and Synergies for Sustainable Development).
All research aims at bringing about change for a better tomorrow and change occurs when the policymakers release new policies based on the findings from that research. That makes it important for the research community to understand policymakers’ needs, so they can get better research outcomes. Professor Nabarro’s work with policymakers has shown him that the most important thing policymakers need from the scientific community is genuine multidisciplinarity. The traditional, siloed approach to research puts the burden on the policy people to arbitrate between the findings of different disciplines to reach a suitable amalgamation. This problem could be easily solved if scientists from different backgrounds come together on their own to come up with multidisciplinary findings that are relevant and useful to the policymakers.
Winner of the 2018 World Food Prize, Professor Nabarro has been leading the food system dialogues at the UN. It is a grassroots initiative to improve the food systems around the world. It serves as the perfect example of how to implement genuine interdisciplinarity while striving for change and development. He and his team were able to achieve this by firstly accepting the reality that there will be issues on which stakeholders will not agree and secondly by accepting the fact that this is okay. Straitjacketing stakeholders into a single pattern of thought is not the aim of diverse participation in the dialogues. They prepare the stakeholders to accept that they will disagree on issues but the disagreement itself does not automatically imply that they will try to torpedo any discussion about how systems could shift in the future.
While Professor Nabarro’s approach has worked for the Food Summit, it did not translate as effectively to the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was visible through the unequal availability and distribution of the vaccines. Genuine and fruitful diverse participation comes from open dialogues that do not discriminate or allow one group to overpower the other, especially the group with particular beliefs like minority groups. However, this was seen lacking in the pandemic with the asymmetry of power relations in the production and availability of vaccines along with the price differences in developing versus developed countries. This ultimately prolonged the pandemic.
If world leaders could not come together to cooperate for a tangible challenge like the pandemic then is there hope for them to unite to fight against global challenges like climate change? Professor Nabarro believes there is. As long as we learn from our past and take the lessons learnt from the lack of multidisciplinary and diverse perspectives, we can remain optimistic about being better prepared for such challenges in the future. It all depends on if people in control of specific disciplines are willing to let go of their rigidity in order to maintain their superiority. When diverse views are voiced, discussed and combined, space opens up for extraordinary possibilities.
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Before moving to the Copywriting and Translations team, Urjaa Singh worked as a copyeditor for books and journals across Springer Nature. She is also passionate about literature and philosophy.