The landscape of conducting research in the Health Sciences has changed dramatically over the past several years as funds from government agencies have declined precipitously. Yet, the problems towards which this research is aimed have not diminished. This is painfully apparent in the field of alcohol (AUD) and substance use disorders (SUD). Cultural, societal, and political changes have brought about new problems that need to be addressed. For example, the legalization of marijuana use in many states, and the recent epidemic of opiate use and its associated deleterious consequences, support the necessity of further investigations of the mechanisms underlying AUD and SUD with the ultimate goals of improving prevention and intervention efforts as well as informing policy decisions. Yet, scientists have lagged behind in changing their approaches to conducting research to meet the challenges of the current funding environment.
To effectively address the complexities that contribute to health conditions and translate them into successful prevention, intervention, and treatment practices, interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary research approaches are needed (Committee on Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research 2005). The health problems of AUDs and SUDs are no exception. Understanding these disorders requires critical knowledge and comprehension of findings derived from multiple fields, from molecular and genetic studies, neurobiology and pharmacology, animal and human laboratory behavioral studies, clinical trials of medications and behavioral interventions as well as an understanding of social, economic, and policy research. Further, technological advances can provide researchers at many levels with new tools to measure and assess their targeted issue. Yet, scientists acquire a set of skills and knowledge in a specialty area and, although this allows them to develop an expertise and examine pertinent, discipline-specific research questions, it can also lead to knowledge isolation (Bindler et al 2012). Applying an interdisciplinary approach can overcome the deficits of specialization and offer a more coordinated and effective approach to understanding health problems. Indeed, The National Institutes of Health (NIH) Roadmap and Common Fund states that research performed within traditional divisions actually can impede scientific discovery (NIH 2014).
Collaborations that cut across research disciplines are considered multidisciplinary. Interdisciplinary research goes beyond having scientists from various fields address a health problem to collaborations between two or more scientists from different disciplines who formulate a problem, carry out the research, and interpret the results together. Transdisciplinary research encompasses a higher level of coordination in which the investigators truly understand each other’s perspective (Bindler et al 2012). Multiple perspectives provide a richness of theoretical approaches and enhance the ability to understand complex situations. Not knowing other viewpoints can create bias or blindness to possible solutions. Thus, interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary collaborations will likely provide a more unbiased perspective and ultimately lead to a better ability to develop effective prevention and treatment methods. Further, these approaches may be more efficient and faster ways to affect clinical treatments. Barriers exist to instituting interdisciplinary research ranging from differences in cultural norms, terminologies, methods and design issues, to regulatory practices. Many of these challenges can be overcome by increasing avenues for communication (Larson & Begg 2011). Several communication practices can be employed to better integrate concepts and methods from different disciplines in the design of research protocols and to investigate the derived hypotheses through interdisciplinary research. These can include expressing respect for other perspectives, communicating regularly with scientists from other fields, sharing research findings in language that is understood by those in other fields, altering research agenda based on interactions with colleagues from different areas, and presenting research findings in venues that represent more than the scientist’s own discipline (Gebbie et al 2008).