Panel Paper: The Network of Cross-Disciplinary Research in Health: Neuroscience Bridging Scientific Disciplines

Saturday, November 10, 2018
8224 - Lobby Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Ran Xu and Navid Ghaffarzadegan, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Newly emerging health problems, as well as those we have long confronted, are proving to be surprisingly complex as scientists and healthcare providers begin to recognize and appreciate the intricate interplay among genes, environment, behavior, and disease. As a consequence, knowledge and concepts from multiple disciplines must be combined and integrated to understand fully the mechanisms of disease. Universities, governments, and funding agencies have long recognized the importance of cross-disciplinary research, and have made numerous efforts to foster such research. However, just as there are great benefits associated with cross-disciplinary research, there are also considerable risks in expanding beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries. Studies have suggested that top-tier journals are skeptical of publishing cross-disciplinary research, which they often consider to be low quality compared with studies in a single discipline. Studies have also shown that cross-disciplinary research is consistently less likely to be funded, and cross-disciplinary scholars can be less productive.

With both benefits and risks associated with today’s cross-disciplinary research, on the micro level it poses a dilemma for individual scientists in terms of the level of engagement in such research, and on the macro level it affects how prevalent this type of research is overall. As the state of cross-disciplinary research is constantly changing (due to its nature of spanning knowledge boundaries), and specifically in the health-related research, it is critical to examine (i) the trends of cross-disciplinary research studies in biological and health sciences, and (ii) important topics emerging in these types of cross-disciplinary research. In this study, we map the progression of cross-disciplinary research studies in biological and health sciences by examining the topics over half a million doctoral dissertations from U.S. institutions in the last two decades. We further conduct a topic-network analysis of the dissertations and examine emerging links between the topics. One major finding is that behavioral sciences and engineering fields are playing an increasingly important role in biological and health sciences research. During the last two decades, about 2.7% and 4.8% of biological dissertations are tagged with behavioral sciences and engineering topics, respectively, and the trend is growing. On the subject level, our analysis points to emerging and strengthening bridging role of neuroscience. It has become one of the most important bridges across various disciplines, such as biological science, behavioral science, health science and engineering.

Additionally, we investigate various factors that might have shaped the bridging role of neuroscience. Specifically, we showed that cross-disciplinary neuroscience research is supported by various departments, with the largest increase in departments other than biological and medical departments. Furthermore, the between-university variation of conducting cross-disciplinary neuroscience research has been increasing over years, and there is association between NIH’s funding and future production of cross-disciplinary research on the university level. Overall, our study points to the dynamic nature of cross-disciplinary research in biological and health sciences, with important new bridges emerging around neuroscience. We also systematically investigate how human and funding capital might have contributed to the increasingly important bridging role of neuroscience.