Advancing Interdisciplinary and Convergent Science for Communities: Lessons Learned through the NCAR Early-Career Faculty Innovator Program

Anamaria Bukvic Department of Geography, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia;

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Kyle Mandli Department of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics, Columbia University, New York, New York;

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Donovan Finn Sustainability Studies Program, School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, Stony Brook University, State University of New York, Stony Brook, New York;

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Talea Mayo Department of Mathematics, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia;

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Gabrielle Wong-Parodi Department of Earth System Science, Stanford University, Palo Alto, California;

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Alexis Merdjanoff School of Global Public Health, New York University, New York, New York;

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Joshua Alland New York University, New York, New York;

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Christopher Davis National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado, and National Hurricane Center, Miami, Florida

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Rebecca Haacker National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado, and National Hurricane Center, Miami, Florida

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Rebecca Morss National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado, and National Hurricane Center, Miami, Florida

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Cassandra O’Lenick National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado, and National Hurricane Center, Miami, Florida

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Olga Wilhelmi National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado, and National Hurricane Center, Miami, Florida

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Danica Lombardozzi National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado, and National Hurricane Center, Miami, Florida

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Free access

Abstract

The authors introduce the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s Early-Career Faculty Innovator Program and present lessons learned about advancing interdisciplinary and convergent science with and for society. The Innovator Program brings together faculty and students from the social sciences with NCAR researchers to conduct interdisciplinary and convergent research on problems motivated by societal challenges in the face of climate change and environmental hazards. This article discusses aspects of program structure and the research being conducted. The article also emphasizes the challenges and successes of the research collaborations within the Innovator Program, along with lessons learned about engaging in highly interdisciplinary, potentially convergent work, particularly from the early-career perspective. Many projects involve faculty PIs from racially, ethnically, or otherwise minoritized groups, and minority serving institutions (MSIs), or those who engage with marginalized communities. Hence, the Innovator Program is contributing to the development of a growing research community pursuing science with and for society that also broadens participation in research related to the atmospheric sciences.

© 2022 American Meteorological Society. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding author: Christopher Davis, cdavis@ucar.edu

Abstract

The authors introduce the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s Early-Career Faculty Innovator Program and present lessons learned about advancing interdisciplinary and convergent science with and for society. The Innovator Program brings together faculty and students from the social sciences with NCAR researchers to conduct interdisciplinary and convergent research on problems motivated by societal challenges in the face of climate change and environmental hazards. This article discusses aspects of program structure and the research being conducted. The article also emphasizes the challenges and successes of the research collaborations within the Innovator Program, along with lessons learned about engaging in highly interdisciplinary, potentially convergent work, particularly from the early-career perspective. Many projects involve faculty PIs from racially, ethnically, or otherwise minoritized groups, and minority serving institutions (MSIs), or those who engage with marginalized communities. Hence, the Innovator Program is contributing to the development of a growing research community pursuing science with and for society that also broadens participation in research related to the atmospheric sciences.

© 2022 American Meteorological Society. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding author: Christopher Davis, cdavis@ucar.edu

Atmospheric and related sciences are critical for addressing some of today’s most pressing societal and environmental issues, ranging from damaging weather extremes to poor air quality to climate change. However, over the past few decades, it has grown increasingly apparent that disciplinary scientific knowledge and capabilities are not, on their own, sufficient to solve such complex and pressing problems (e.g., White et al. 2001; National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine 2005, 2021). Addressing these types of crosscutting issues requires interdisciplinary work that integrates knowledge and tools from multiple relevant fields and provides policy- or decision-relevant information. Thus, the scientific community and funding organizations are increasingly prioritizing interdisciplinary, actionable, and convergent science as strategies for addressing these urgent challenges.

For the purposes of this article, interdisciplinary research is not simply the exchange of information across parallel disciplinary research paths, but instead requires deep integration of different disciplines in terms of methods, approaches, and tools. Actionable science provides scientifically sound information that is useful for decision making. Convergent research involves deep integration across disciplines to form novel frameworks and catalyze discovery aimed at addressing a specific, compelling problem (e.g., Morss et al. 2018; Peek et al. 2020; NCAR 2020). Convergence includes the elements of interdisciplinarity and actionability. There is broad recognition that convergence is increasingly important and quantifiably useful (Okamura 2019; National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine 2005, 2014, 2021).

The present article describes the Early-Career Faculty Innovator Program (Innovator Program for short), a new program that emphasizes interdisciplinary and convergent science at the intersection of physical and social sciences. The scientific scope lies within the framework of Earth system science, specifically, research within the mission of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). Consistent with the evolution of community and agency priorities, NCAR adopted a new Strategic Plan in 2020 renewing its purpose as “science with and for society” (NCAR 2020). While NCAR’s work has included interdisciplinary and actionable science for many decades, NCAR and NSF recognized that realizing this vision required a renewed approach for NCAR to partner with human dimensions and social science expertise. The Innovator Program was developed as part of a broader strategy to address this vision.

This article also synthesizes elements of an ongoing conversation within the program and within the broader community about the challenges and benefits of engaging in science that is highly interdisciplinary, often convergent, and involves working with a diverse group of actors who may benefit from the research. Recommendations are presented with the intent of increasing awareness of what it takes to do this work well, and what changes would be helpful at the local, institutional, and systemic levels. These recommendations are motivated by a recognition that a diverse approach to science, including actionable, interdisciplinary, and convergent science, is responsive to the interests of the current and upcoming generation of scientists, and that success across a range of scientific methodologies requires deliberate attention to the needs of those different methodologies.

Description of the Innovator Program

Overview and goals of program.

The Innovator Program was launched in late 2018. Funded by NSF and managed by NCAR, the Innovator Program brings together NCAR scientists and academic faculty in the social and behavioral sciences to codevelop and coimplement interdisciplinary Earth system science research that is responsive to societal needs. A central feature of the Innovator Program is interdisciplinary research spanning geoscience and social sciences related to climate and weather impacts on society. The collaborations are intended to expand the reach of science done by NCAR, and to foster multidirectional knowledge exchange among scientists across many disciplines in the physical and social sciences. The program provides for an extended residency of faculty and students at NCAR to allow time for dialogue and mutual familiarization among participants in project teams of the scientific goals, language, and tools that each discipline brings. Professional development, in the form of mentoring, training in elements of community-based science, and deeper exploration of new research tools, has been part of the Innovator Program since its beginning.

The Innovator Program is focused on early-career faculty. However, the Innovator Program is accessible to all pretenured faculty regardless of their stage or the number of years in tenure-track positions, and tenured faculty who were promoted within 1 year of the award start date. Faculty awardees and their proposed research are supported for 2 years through subawards from NCAR. Each faculty is the PI of their own 2-yr project, which typically includes several NCAR collaborators. Innovator awards provide faculty summer salary support, full funding for one graduate student for 2 years, research support, and conference travel. The goal for providing this comprehensive funding is to allow early-career faculty to focus on establishing successful research partnerships with their colleagues at NCAR without having to immediately engage in major grant writing to sustain themselves and their graduate students.

The Innovator Program supported 9 faculty in its first cohort (2019–22) and is supporting another 12 faculty in its second cohort (2021–23). Collaborative teams of physical and social scientists work on a variety of interdisciplinary research topics that span the scope of actionable science outlined in the current NCAR Strategic Plan. Cohort 1 focused on coastal regions and human settlements impacted by weather extremes and climate change. Cohort 2 projects focus on actionable Earth system science topics, as described in the NCAR Strategic Plan. The Innovator Program has thus far supported a total of 21 faculty and 26 graduate students from 21 different universities. Six universities are minority-serving institutions (MSIs). The program has also included 44 NCAR researchers, bringing the total number of program participants to 91 thus far. Both cohorts have a balanced representation of institution types, and research areas of the faculty and their graduate students (see the appendix Tables A1 and A2). The NCAR researchers involved with the program to date span five NCAR laboratories (Table A3), with eight of the projects involving multiple laboratories. These data indicate the breadth of topics and the interdisciplinarity of the physical-science portions of many projects.

A key element of the Innovator Program is expanding a community of researchers, including early-career faculty, graduate students, NCAR scientists, and other external collaborators, who engage in interdisciplinary and convergent research. The capacity building that is supported through this growing community has resulted in joint publications, grant proposals, workshop and conference sessions, and a short course on citizen science hosted by the University of South Carolina Critical Ecologies Laboratory. As a way to grow the community, the program includes funding for a PI symposium where Innovator faculty and staff, program leadership, and NCAR collaborators convene to discuss issues important to the community, exchange research ideas, and develop or initiate high-impact deliverables such as publications and large-scale grant proposals (“PI symposium” section).

In alignment with NCAR’s strategic goals, the Innovator Program is committed to broadening participation and creating a just, equitable, diverse, and inclusive geoscience workforce. To achieve this, program recruitment is done broadly at national conferences, through recruiting networks, and by engaging with MSIs and smaller academic institutions. In 2021, Innovator program leadership expanded its recruitment efforts to ensure greater institutional diversity for cohort 2 compared to cohort 1. These efforts included compiling a comprehensive list of MSIs with graduate programs in the social sciences, contacting graduate school programs at MSIs directly to share information about the program, leveraging the network connections of cohort 1 and our external proposal reviewers, and promoting the program widely through organizations or initiatives that serve minoritized groups. These enhanced recruitment efforts resulted in a 43% increase in the percentage of applicants from MSIs, and an 87% increase in the number of non-White applicants identified by race/ethnicity questions in an anonymous survey.

The overall implementation of the Innovator Program has been iterative and informed by external evaluation that continuously assesses Innovator Program management, progress toward stated goals, and overall impact through formative and summative evaluation. This includes establishing benchmarks, program timelines, a reporting schedule, review processes, and synthesis of results. Feedback from the Innovator faculty is especially critical for the continued development and improvement of the program, and is assessed by both Innovator Program management and the external evaluator. Data have been continuously collected on research outputs such as the number of peer-review publications and the number of grants submitted with NCAR collaborators. The evaluator conducted a network analysis to understand evolving collaborations, and assessed the impacts of COVID-19 on research by administering several surveys to solicit feedback on the summer 2020 and summer 2021 workshops. These results from the external and internal evaluations have been used by Innovator Program leadership to inform programmatic changes between cohorts 1 and 2.

Cohort 1.

The inaugural Innovator cohort (2019–21) of nine faculty focused on interdisciplinary research at the intersection of weather/climate hazards and coastal communities. This cohort included six scientists from social science disciplines, including public health, sociology, anthropology, urban planning, decision science, population movement, and cartography, and three faculty from marine science, engineering, and computational science. Funded projects addressed issues such as the potential impacts of changing conditions in the coastal zone on minority and aging populations, improving forecasts of coastal flooding, better management of marine resources, and exploring the impacts of projected changes to climate and population on hurricane storm surge risk for communities of color (Fig. 1 and Table A1; see also sidebars entitled “Changing coastlines, changing mobility: When staying in place is no longer an option” and “Exploring the impacts of projected changes to climate and population on hurricane storm surge risk for communities of color”). Primary data collection during cohort 1, through interviews and surveys, involved local and state officials, local nonprofit organizations, private sector representatives, and residents affected by or vested in coastal issues. Groups of residents included rural and urban homeowners, as well as older individuals.

Fig. 1.
Fig. 1.

Schematic of a hypothetical coastal region including the subject matter of each cohort 1 project.

Citation: Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 103, 11; 10.1175/BAMS-D-21-0265.1

The composition of cohort 1 was intended to ensure that the funded research at the intersection of hazards and coastal communities was sufficiently broad to attract several NCAR collaborators to each project, and would complement their expertise. The geographic focus of the projects was also considered to ensure there was some overlap that would foster collaboration based on regional interests (e.g., coastal Louisiana or the mid-Atlantic region). NCAR collaborators on cohort 1 projects included 17 scientists with expertise in climate modeling, hydrology, oceanography, meteorology, atmospheric chemistry, and social science with expertise in risk communication and GIS science.

Cohort building.

In 2019, overlapping summer visits to NCAR with organized events fostered a close-knit cohort of faculty and students. The physical proximity and overlapping interests allowed this group to develop unique relationships and collaborations with each other that have been successfully sustained through the present day. Faculty also reported that the ability to meet regularly in person, participate in small group idea sessions, and even socialize outside of working hours allowed the participants to develop new professional networks and relationships that would have been unlikely to occur without the mechanism of the Innovator Program, given the participants’ varied backgrounds and geographic distribution.

By December 2020, cohort 1 faculty were collaborating on research and grant proposals, cochairing conference sessions, writing collaborative manuscripts, and traveling together for research in overlapping study areas. They had also formed a PI peer-mentoring network. The ad hoc peer mentoring provided faculty with assistance on submitting NSF CAREER awards, datasets to use for other research projects, and functioned as a support group during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is arguably one of the most personally and professionally challenging situations academic researchers have faced in the United States in decades (Myers et al. 2020; Gao et al. 2021). While our evaluation results demonstrate that the in-person summer was critical to seed these relationships, the faculty have had to work hard to maintain them under unprecedented circumstances. This suggests that the development of this peer group is exceedingly valuable to the faculty on both a professional and a personal level, and cohort building should continue to be a priority for the Innovator Program (O’Lenick et al. 2020).

Connecting to NCAR.

Visits to NCAR allowed Innovator faculty to connect with NCAR staff, attend numerous seminars and lectures, and participate in events such as the Python Hackathon, the Community Earth System Model (CESM) tutorial, and the Broadening Participation in the Interdisciplinary Geosciences: Hands-on Training and Education (BRIGHTE) workshops. Student participants also benefited from these workshops learning new skills that they applied to their research such as Python, ArcGIS, and high-performance computing.

While the theme for cohort 1 and initial program activities provided scaffolding for building a strong and collaborative cohort of faculty, the relatively compressed time available for recruiting cohort 1 and planning initial program activities meant that the first stage of the program did not leverage the full potential of collaborations with expertise across NCAR. Based on these experiences, additional activities to foster collaboration between cohort 1 and NCAR staff were being planned for summer 2020, but these were put on hold due to the pandemic. Lessons learned from the experience of cohort 1 were put into place for cohort 2 (Table 1), leading to more intentional strategies for building interdisciplinary collaborations across Innovator faculty and NCAR expertise, discussed further below.

Table 1.

Modifications to the application process, collaboration approach, and programmatic activities reflecting lessons learned from the cohort 1.

Table 1.

COVID-19 impacts on cohort 1.

The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic began precipitously in the United States approximately 9 months after cohort 1 faculty started their appointments in the program. Our evaluation found that the impacts of the pandemic on cohort 1 projects and personnel were widespread and severe. Many faculty projects were interrupted in their early stages due to the pandemic, and plans to meet in person during the summers of 2020 and 2021 were canceled. The “lock-downs” and social distancing measures resulted in canceled ethnographic research that relied on in person data collection or required changes in the primary data collection approach from in-person interviewing and surveying to online or mail options. Faculty reported greater demands on their time to restructure their courses for the online modality and create new digital content, increased graduate student turnover, immeasurable personal stress, and unexpected childcare or family care responsibilities.

Between May 2020 and May 2021, six of the nine faculty (majority social science faculty) reported project delays or significant adjustments to their study design due to SARS-CoV-2. Two projects were indefinitely delayed until in-person data collection could resume. These projects were replaced by efforts to secure extramural funding with minimal or no personal contact. Student participants reported canceled conference presentations, and challenges in learning and retaining knowledge in a hybrid or virtual academic environment. Fewer opportunities to acquire certain skill sets (e.g., in-depth interviewing), due to major changes in study design, delayed progress in students’ degree programs. Uncertainty about employment opportunities, added to the other challenges, resulted in an overall decline in well-being. All students reported that it was harder to make new connections with NCAR without the in-person summer program. Largely because of the impacts of the pandemic, cohort 1 received a no-cost extension through May 2022.

PI symposium.

To better understand a more complete landscape of factors that influence participation in convergent research, the Innovator Program hosted a PI symposium in July 2021, led by the cohort 1 faculty, called “Catalyzing Innovation Through Convergence Research.” This symposium brought together a diverse set of social and physical scientists across a spectrum of fields and centered on a discussion around the challenges, strategies, and best paths forward for individual researchers, institutions, and funding agencies who are interested in doing convergent research. During the symposium, these topics were discussed and synthesized in smaller groups, leading to the articulation of a comprehensive set of challenges and strategies for convergent research that built on previous related work (Morss et al. 2022). These challenges are described below, along with strategies for individual researchers, institutions, and funding agencies to ameliorate those challenges. Because the symposium focused on the experiences of Innovator Program faculty, students, and NCAR collaborators, we do not report on the challenges our community stakeholders face in connecting to convergent research projects.

Cohort 2.

The second Innovator cohort began in fall 2021 and was framed around the actionable science research themes in the NCAR strategic plan: (i) air quality management, food, and water availability; (ii) mitigating adverse effects on infrastructure; (iii) advancing predictive science and technology for weather and water risk; and (iv) advancing climate change mitigation, intervention, and adaptation strategies. Figure 2 shows how the cohort 2 project topics map onto these actionable science themes. Cohort 2 projects address a range of actionable science topics, including improving social adaptation to wildfires, integrating climate data into farm management, communicating extreme weather risks for protecting human health and critical infrastructure systems, and mitigating bias in Earth science data for environmental justice in Black communities (Table A2). In addition to the geoscience areas of expertise listed for NCAR scientists in cohort 1, cohort 2 collaborations added NCAR scientists working in land and crop modeling, wildfire modeling, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. Prior to the Innovator Program, only two of the faculty awardees had prior NCAR collaborations with a total of six NCAR researchers. By mid-2022, 37 NCAR collaborators were working across 12 cohort 2 faculty projects.

Fig. 2.
Fig. 2.

Mapping of cohort 2 projects (within quadrants of the circle) onto actionable science themes in the NCAR Strategic Plan (rectangles with matching colors).

Citation: Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 103, 11; 10.1175/BAMS-D-21-0265.1

The actionable science theme, combined with adoption of more intentional strategies for matching faculty and NCAR researchers’ interests and fostering collaborations, has enabled more successful integration of Innovators’ projects with NCAR expertise. A greater emphasis was placed on convergent research approaches in cohort 2, partly because the impacts of COVID-19 and the compressed recruiting and planning timeline discussed above made this difficult to achieve in cohort 1. Beginning with cohort 2, a Core Science Team of NCAR interdisciplinary scientists guided the overall implementation of the program, and at least one member of the Core Science Team participated on each research team in a “mentor” role to help university and NCAR collaborators navigate the challenges of interdisciplinary work, as needed, while advancing the convergent research goals of each project. The Core Science Team made extensive efforts to match faculty who submitted letters of intent with NCAR scientists interested in collaboration on the proposed topic, and encouraged integration of methodological approaches with NCAR collaborators beginning early in project planning. This led to proposals that were more codesigned between faculty and NCAR researchers than with cohort 1.

Engaging in interdisciplinary and convergent research

Challenges.

Experiences with the Innovator Program over the last few years provided opportunities for the authors to reflect on the program’s ability to foster interdisciplinary and convergent research. While engaging in this type of research is rewarding and potentially transformative, convergent research projects must overcome a series of challenges. Building on the challenges discussed in prior work, here we discuss the challenges observed through the lens of those involved in the Innovator Program (see also Table 2). These challenges are multidimensional and present at different levels of implementation: from the level of the individual researcher, to community partners and research teams, to institutes of higher education and funding agencies (Rhoten 2004; Peek and Guikema 2021; Morss et al. 2022; Finn et al. 2022). Each level of challenge involves the development of relationships and familiarization with new communities of practice and their methods, outputs, requirements, and language. Relationship building and learning to build robust and effective interdisciplinary research synergies take time, often years.

Junior faculty who are interested in convergent research face several difficulties. The requirements of tenure generally differ from the requirements of engaging in convergent research (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine 2005, 2014; Reich and Reich 2006; Fischer et al. 2011; Benson et al. 2016; Schuitema and Sintov 2017). Compared with more traditional, disciplinary research, additional time is necessary to build interdisciplinary teams, and nurture relationships with stakeholders who contribute to research and may benefit from policy actions stemming from the science outcomes (Stokols 2006; Kueffer et al. 2012). This is particularly true for early-career faculty who are initiating new collaborations and relationships. Yet the tenure clock is fixed. This means that either traditional metrics of productivity will be lower at the time of tenure decision, or the faculty will need to produce research products before collaborations and networks can mature. Sustained funding also can be a problem because there are still relatively few programs that fund highly interdisciplinary work (although that is improving) and the duration of grants is often relatively short compared to the time needed to initiate deeply integrative efforts (Fischer et al. 2012; Schuitema and Sintov 2017). The output of convergent research is often more varied in form and more difficult to publish in traditional peer-reviewed journals. As such, it may be less valued by the promotion and tenure committees. For example, in addition to traditional academic formats such as publishing refereed articles, outputs might include publicly accessible reports for community partners and policy makers, public scholarship like op-eds, white papers and professional guidance documents, artwork, community engagement processes, and public exhibits, which help bridge the science–policy–community divide but fall outside the traditional academic formats (e.g., refereed manuscripts and book chapters).

Several additional challenges that Innovator Program students and postdoctoral researchers identified include the following: 1) lack of formal instruction in interdisciplinary research at the universities, 2) few funding mechanisms and a lack of institutional support for highly interdisciplinary graduate research, 3) insufficient time to codevelop projects with collaborators, 4) uncertainty in career prospects for researchers focusing in interdisciplinary or convergent work, and 5) a lack of incentives for becoming an interdisciplinary scientist. Most students reported a tension between needing to fulfill the requirements of their program while having to learn new technical skills and epistemologies to participate in the interdisciplinary research. Additionally, the students identified that the creativity necessary for convergent research is rewarding but requires significant time and energy. In almost all cases, the Innovator Program represented the first time that graduate students worked on an interdisciplinary research study. Despite the above challenges, approximately 83% of the graduate students in cohort 1 reported learning new skills as part of Innovator Projects. These skills included geographical information systems, geospatial analyses, Python programming, MATLAB programming, in depth interviewing, high-performance computing, story mapping, participatory action research, and manipulating climate/weather model output data.

There are also intrinsic issues centered around the disciplinary grounding or structures of most existing research paradigms that complicate convergent research. For example, the types of data collected by one discipline may not be immediately usable by another discipline due to differences in temporal or spatial scale required to answer research questions or in the qualitative versus quantitative nature of the data. Additionally, data formats and accessibility can range widely across disciplines and pose additional problems for data usability and integration (Palmer et al. 2016; Morss et al. 2018). Regarding research products, selecting a journal for publication can be challenging, as publications in journals outside a given discipline may not be considered valuable, even if highly cited. The practice of ordering coauthors on publications varies across disciplines and makes contributions difficult to interpret (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine 2005; Hardy 2021). More generally, the amount of time and effort it takes to learn the language and methods of another field is a necessary investment that can delay the production of research outputs.

Strategies.

In providing recommendations of strategies to rectify the issues identified above, it is helpful to consider actions at the individual, institutional, and systemic levels. The authors ­recognize that the implementation of strategies at broader levels will require substantial effort, and is intertwined with the national and international evolution of the way all scientific research is ­conducted and valued. The complexity of the system within which convergent research occurs, illustrated schematically in Fig. 3 for the community working at the intersection of physical and social sciences, implies that not only will changes be needed at the different levels outlined below, but the changes will not be sustained unless the local-to-systemic range of changes happens in a connected and deliberate fashion.

Fig. 3.
Fig. 3.

Schematic showing the intersecting network of social scientists, physical scientists, and stakeholders for convergent research, against the backdrop of agency or institutional priorities and participation of communities that may be misaligned in some situations.

Citation: Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 103, 11; 10.1175/BAMS-D-21-0265.1

Individuals and research teams.

Individuals and teams have several ways to engage effectively in interdisciplinary and convergent research. Here we again build on the recommendations from prior work and discuss strategies identified (and in some cases tested) by participants in the Innovator Program. One key strategy is to initiate conversations about individual and collective goals and approaches and the roles and responsibilities of different participants early in a collaborative effort, and to continue revisiting these topics as the effort evolves. This includes learning about others’ needs and methods, questioning assumptions, and identifying opportunities to adjust project plans and strategies as learning occurs (Davidson 2015; Morss et al. 2018; Bruine de Bruin and Morgan 2019).

One identified challenge was that physical scientists sometimes enter collaborations with social scientists anticipating that social science will help them translate their physical science into useful information for stakeholders and communities. While such approaches are well-intentioned, social scientists have a wide variety of expertise and their own sets of research interests. Thus, we recommend pursuing convergent science by creating an intersecting network of physical scientists, social scientists, and stakeholders, with connections that bring the contributors’ skills and interests together to address the compelling societal problem in ways that each could not accomplish on their own (Fig. 3). This recommended strategy requires being intentional about building mutual understanding and goals, which can help to increase trust among collaborators, increase the efficiency of projects, and expand project scopes to tackle vexing research questions. Efficiency is important for students and postdoctoral researchers who may only have a few years to complete a project, as well as early-career faculty who need to publish quickly for their tenure application.

In addition, as available expertise in these types of work grows, it can be helpful to have at least one person with experience in convergent science involved in a project as a collaborator or peer mentor. In cohort 2, this peer-mentor role was included to help guide each team, as needed, through the iterative process of communication across perspectives and compromise toward common goals. It can be helpful to have someone in a mentoring role who can distinguish more productive versus less productive research directions or patterns, while still recognizing that each project proceeds along its own path and each participant brings their own valuable experiences and mentoring capacity.

Institutions and funding agencies.

The support of institutional leaders is also critical to the success of convergent research (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine 2005, 2014, 2019; Aboelela et al. 2007; Bruine de Bruin and Morgan 2019). Benson et al. (2016) noted that the general statements of support for interdisciplinary or convergent work do not always translate into obtaining tenure when engaged mainly in this kind of work. The authors of this article have noted that leaders responsible for making tenure and promotion decisions often resort to traditional measures of success because either their institutions place less value on interdisciplinary research compared with disciplinary research, or because procedures and precedent to quantify that value are not established. Endorsing the concept of convergent research requires a commitment to support and reward it at the level of the individual faculty member or researcher, especially early-career scientists who are highly vulnerable to the risks inherent in this kind of work. Deans, provosts, department chairs, and tenure committees all have a role in valuing convergent research and creating the systems and practices that properly identify and reward high-quality science in this realm.

For convergent research to become embedded into institutional research scaffolding and accepted as a mainstream approach, it is important for institutions to expand their culture and value-based system to allocate appropriate weight to such efforts (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine 2005, 2014, 2019; Fischer et al. 2012; Kueffer et al. 2012; Davidson 2015). This cultural evolution can be initiated through education about convergence, including lectures and workshops at the universities and research institutions for administrators and faculty, and panels, learning modules, or short courses at conferences and workshops (e.g., the Coastlines and People workshops in Atlanta, San Diego, and Chicago in 2018). ­Providing specific examples and highlighting broader impacts stemming from convergent research should be the key part of the messaging. Most importantly, there should be incentives, such as resources, professional recognition, and specialty training, to enable convergent research (e.g., research incubators supported with internal seed funding and professional training that satisfy professional development requirements). As many higher education institutions are already experimenting with the inclusion of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary degrees and programs to create adequate spaces for students and faculty interested in working outside and across disciplines (e.g., Columbia University’s Climate School), there is room to build upon those efforts when introducing the concept of convergent research.

Table 2.

Key challenges and possible solutions of convergent research identified from the Innovator Program PI Symposium.

Table 2.

To fully enable convergent research, institutions and academic departments need to develop support mechanisms that will facilitate publishing, grant writing, interactions, and visibility in this research space. Providing resources such as compilations of convergent studies as examples, perspective papers that critically reflect on the existing convergent research efforts, and guidelines on how to be more productive and avoid critical pitfalls when doing this type of research would be paramount for positive outcomes. Also, maintaining information on journals and funding opportunities that welcome convergent research, the existence of professional networks and national programs (like Innovators), and institutions with the expertise and capacity to engage would be helpful.

Networks can help, for instance, if a researcher is not in a position to take on all aspects of implementing a convergence effort that can require significant project building, management, and coordination (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine 2005, 2014). It is helpful to encourage the pairing of researchers who are equally committed and also bring the capacity to engage in nonconventional forms of productivity and take more risk. It can be prudent to start small and subsequently increase the complexity and extent of research as experience builds up and professional rank allows for more flexibility. Transparency on the roles, level of commitment, timeline, and institutional expectations from the very beginning of projects is important. Even though it would be beneficial to have a tangible framework for participants to ensure equitable participation and distributed benefits, it is also important to be flexible and adaptive, which is at the core of convergent research that involves continual learning and reevaluation (Reich and Reich 2006; Palmer et al. 2016; Morss et al. 2018).

Systemic changes.

As demonstrated in the example of the Innovator Program, truly interdisciplinary or convergent research and user-driven actionable work relies on creating authentic partnerships, building trust, and fostering mutual learning of expertise-specific methods and language (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine 2005, 2014; Reich and Reich 2006; Steger et al. 2021). All this takes time, and funding mechanisms need to be adjusted accordingly to allow for a period of partnership building before results can be expected. Three-year grant cycles do not adequately support novel convergence, nor do the short-term focused evaluation and reward models in tenure and promotion processes in academia and research. Funding agencies should regularly include resources for partnership building (perhaps similar to NSF’s Research Coordination Network) and expect projects to adjust their timelines to reflect the reality of doing interdisciplinary and convergent work.

When funding agencies convene panels to review and select grant proposals, agencies must ensure that the panels are sufficiently interdisciplinary and qualified to judge the nature of convergent research. Panelists with experience in conducting interdisciplinary research would be excellent additions. By using panels instead of mail-in reviews, discussion among reviewers with different expertise can be encouraged. Through expanding a community of researchers, the Innovator Program is increasing the pool of expertise for evaluating interdisciplinary and convergent proposals involving social and physical sciences.

Regarding publications, either more special issues or an expansion of the scope of existing journals may be needed to provide a recognized place for publishing interdisciplinary and convergent research. Training for reviewers of interdisciplinary articles and training editors on how to evaluate convergence research articles will also be critical.

Summary and conclusions

Realizing the increasing demands on science to deliver innovations that are useful for broad constituencies and communities requires an intentional building of cross-disciplinary relationships and increasing the capacity of scientists to work in highly interdisciplinary teams (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine 2005, 2014; Palmer et al. 2016; Pittman et al. 2016; Peek et al. 2020; Morss et al. 2022). To reach these goals, the Early Career Faculty Innovator Program has strengthened NCAR’s path to successful delivery of its own strategic goals in actionable science. It does so in a collaborative, inclusive manner by facilitating NCAR physical and social scientists to engage authentically with early-career faculty primarily representing social sciences, and by enhancing NCAR’s own capabilities in this critical research area. Following the end of their projects, some early-career faculty may be appointed as an NCAR affiliate scientist to continue the scientific relationship, funded by joint proposal efforts to support work in subsequent years. Faculty-led grant proposals are also envisioned as a result of the collaborations and research established within the program.

Motivated by the July 2021 Innovator Program PI Symposium and recently published work on convergent research, this article has laid out some priorities to address the challenges of doing such deeply interdisciplinary work. The priorities represent three interrelated areas: increasing the ability of individuals to successfully engage in this work, changing institutional practice, and creating systemic or community-wide changes. A unifying theme is one of building capacity, which requires giving early-career scientists the skills, the intellectual space, and the supportive environment needed to pursue this research.

Truly convergent research requires resources that are in short supply and must be expanded: time for interdisciplinary teams to develop working relationships and learn how to usefully collaborate, funding to support these longer project timelines, and training opportunities for graduate students and junior faculty regarding how to work across disciplinary silos. Moreover, to facilitate the kind of boundary-spanning research that can truly address society’s grand challenges, it is also important to create “soft” mechanisms and spaces where such collaborations are supported, not only financially and logistically, but also philosophically. For many of the faculty involved in the Innovator Program, this has been reported as one of the most valuable components of the program: the sense of being part of a research community where interdisciplinarity is recognized and valued has been a source of both emotional and logistical support and validation even when disciplinary gatekeepers have failed to provide the same.

The future of the Innovator Program is to continue building a research community for actionable, interdisciplinary, and convergent science, and to expand the reach and influence of science related to the Earth system. We are hopeful that the mutual interest and bidirectional knowledge exchange between social science and geosciences will accelerate as a result. Such progress should be measured by longitudinal tracking of the work and career progression of all scientists involved in the program. As one measure of impact on science, we anticipate that the students currently in the Innovator Program will one day be leading their own interdisciplinary research teams or continuing to work in such teams. The long-term outcomes of the resulting research with and for society should be assessed through monitoring the evolution of relationships between researchers and practitioners or communities, assessing trust, and recognizing how information produced by the research gains usage over time.

Changing coastlines, changing mobility: When staying in place is no longer an option

This project is focused on human mobility in the coastal zone driven by coastal flooding. It took a three-pronged approach to evaluate the possibility of relocation across different spatial scales, coastal settings (rural versus urban), and decision-making levels (from personal to the community). The first line of inquiry explored the role of place attachment in people’s decision to relocate in response to chronic and episodic flooding. Place attachment has been acknowledged in the literature as an important factor in mobility decision-making (Anton and Lawrence 2014). However, this concept has not yet been explored in the coastal context. To assess this issue, the Innovator Faculty Anamaria Bukvic, in partnership with NCAR collaborator Olga Wilhelmi and two graduate students (Aaron Whitemore and Jack Gonzales), first developed a novel metric, the coastal relocation place attachment index, for measuring place attachment and applied it to flood-prone rural and urban coastal areas in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. The results show that rural areas have higher place attachment than urban areas (Bukvic et al. 2022).

The next research activity included a telephone survey in the selected rural and urban locations about the place attachment and willingness to relocate due to flooding. The second effort scaled up inquiries on relocation to the community/regional level and identified flood-induced cascading events that would surpass tipping points and lead to extensive population displacement. Considering the anticipated extent of coastal flooding, it is likely that many places will simultaneously face the risk of displacement and permanent relocation. However, proactive relocation planning is difficult due to limited knowledge of comprehensive considerations driving relocation decision-making. Similarly, little is known about the place-based tipping points in coastal settings with different flood risks. This knowledge gap was addressed via interviews with decision-makers familiar with coastal issues in rural and urban areas. The results show that the cascading events and tipping points significantly differ between rural and urban areas and are grounded in their economic development needs and sociodemographic realities (Fig. SB1). Some concerns are shared between these two settings, namely, issues with accessibility due to flooded roads, property damages, and impacts on property value and livelihoods.

Fig. SB1.
Fig. SB1.

The key drivers of flood-induced outmigration in rural and urban coastal areas of Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina identified via interviews with decision-makers.

Citation: Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 103, 11; 10.1175/BAMS-D-21-0265.1

The last project component captured the attitudes toward relocation among residents in urban areas and probed factors that influence the decision of where to relocate. A large-scale online survey was administered to urban flood-prone areas along the East Coast, from New York to Florida. It showed that almost half of the urban respondents would relocate due to flooding. These survey data have also been used in the machine learning models developed by NCAR researchers Alexandra Ramos Valle and Joshua Alland. At the core of this Innovator’s project was an effort to capture sentiments on relocation among underserved populations such as rural and older residents and disadvantaged urban neighborhoods. For example, many rural satellite communities are experiencing compounding sociodemographic and economic problems (Henning-Smith 2021). Still, they are often perceived as more resilient and self-sufficient, possibly overestimating their ability to cope with flooding. The Early Career Innovator project enabled an early-career researcher to collect instrumental data and engage in research activities with a senior NCAR scholar (geospatial analysis and visualization) and two junior NCAR researchers to apply novel computational methods using the same survey data.

Exploring the impacts of projected changes to climate and population on hurricane storm surge risk for communities of color

While it is expected that the local mean sea level will increase in many places over the next century (Kopp et al. 2014), tropical cyclone climatology (e.g., frequency, intensity, size) is also expected to change in ways that will impact the storm surge hazard. Ethan Gutmann et al. (2018) used a high-resolution regional climate model to investigate potential climate change impacts to tropical cyclones by simulating historical storms both before and after imposing a future climate signal. The signal reflects projected changes in temperature, humidity, pressure, and wind speeds expected over the next century. On average, these simulations produced tropical cyclones with faster maximum winds, slower storm translation speeds, lower central pressures, and higher precipitation rates.

During the first year of the Innovator Program, Assistant Professor Talea Mayo and her graduate student Jeane Camelo worked with Gutmann of NCAR to investigate the implications of his study for storm surge risk. The simulated tropical cyclones were used to create the atmospheric forcing in the Advanced Circulation (ADCIRC) storm surge model (Luettich et al. 1992), which was used to assess the resulting storm surge inundation volume and areal extent. The team found that of 21 simulated storms, inundation volume increased for 14 of them and the average change across all storms was +36%. The areal extent increased for 13 storms, and the average change across all storms was +25% (Camelo et al. 2020). Both of these results suggest dire consequences for coastal communities in the future.

In the second year of the Innovator Program, Mayo and graduate student J. Danielle Sharpe focused on understanding how evolving flood risk might impact marginalized groups based on projections of race. People from marginalized racial and ethnic groups are disproportionately affected by natural disasters and extreme weather events in our current climate (Sharpe and Wolkin 2021). Mayo and Sharpe sought to determine the differential impacts that Black and African American people may experience compared to people from other groups during a climate change–exacerbated disaster event at the end of the century.

Using Hurricane Sandy (2012) as a case study, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) social vulnerability index (CDC 2014), and the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) Columbia University georeferenced population projections (Hauer 2021) were used to assess projected changes to the number of people from marginalized racial and ethnic groups in New York counties impacted by the end of century Sandy (Fig. SB2). In nearly all scenarios, substantial increases to the number of affected individuals were observed, indicating that as severe hurricanes continue to increase and intensify over time, there will be an increasing need for emergency managers to support communities of color in preparing for, responding to, recovering from, and adapting to climate change. In summary, the Early Career Innovator project enabled a junior faculty to utilize data and tools from multiple disciplines and engage in research activities with a senior NCAR scholar to use state-of-the-art models to better understand climate change impacts. Two junior scholars were able to integrate convergent science into their graduate studies.

Fig. SB2.
Fig. SB2.

Changes to the number of people from marginalized racial and ethnic groups affected by a Hurricane Sandy event at the end of the century assuming climate change conditions and various population growth scenarios.

Citation: Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 103, 11; 10.1175/BAMS-D-21-0265.1

Acknowledgments.

This work was sponsored by the National Science Foundation under Cooperative Agreement 1755088. The authors thank Simmi Sinha of NCAR for drafting Fig. 1 of this article and Valerie Sloan for providing very helpful comments and suggestions on the initial complete manuscript. The National Center for Atmospheric Research is sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

Data availability statement.

For data collected during the study led by author Bukvic, neither the data nor the source of the data can be made available due to privacy and ethical concerns. Datasets for the study led by author Mayo are included in Camelo et al. (2020), Hauer (2019), and the 2010–14 American Community Survey: www.census.gov/programs-surveys/acs/technical-documentation/table-and-geography-changes/2014/5-year.html.

Appendix: Faculty, research projects, and NCAR collaborations

Below is information about the faculty and research projects for each of the two Innovator Program cohorts. Tables A1 and A2 list faculty, project titles, and affiliations for cohorts 1 and 2, respectively. Table A3 summarizes the NCAR participation in projects.

Table A1.

Cohort 1 faculty, project titles, and affiliations. An asterisk denotes an interdisciplinary scientist outside of the social sciences.

Table A1.
Table A2.

Cohort 2 faculty and projects. Asterisk indicates the PI of a seed-funded project with a smaller funding amount.

Table A2.
Table A3.

Summary of NCAR laboratories participating in cohort 1 and 2 projects, including cross-laboratory collaborations. The total number of projects involving multiple laboratories is 8, with as many as four laboratories collaborating on one project with a university PI.

Table A3.

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    • Search Google Scholar
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  • Anton, C. E. , and C. Lawrence , 2014: Home is where the heart is: The effect of place of residence on place attachment and community participation. J. Environ. Psychol., 40, 451461, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2014.10.007.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bruine de Bruin, W. , and M. G. Morgan , 2019: Reflections on an interdisciplinary collaboration to inform public understanding of climate change, mitigation, and impacts. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 116, 76767683, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1803726115.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bukvic, A. , A. Whittemore , J. Gonzales , and O. Wilhelmi , 2022: Understanding relocation in flood-prone coastal communities through the lens of place attachment. Appl. Geog., 146, 102758, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apgeog.2022.102758.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Camelo, J. , T. L. Mayo , and E. D. Gutmann , 2020: Projected climate change impacts on hurricane storm surge inundation in the coastal United States. Front. Built Environ., 6, 588049, https://doi.org/10.3389/fbuil.2020.588049.

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    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Finn, D. , and Coauthors, 2022: Moving from interdisciplinary to convergent research across geoscience and social sciences: Challenges and strategies. Environ. Res. Lett., 17, 061002, https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ac7409.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fischer, A. R. H. , H. Tobi , and A. Ronteltap , 2011: When natural met social: A review of collaboration between the natural and social sciences. Interdiscip. Sci. Rev., 36, 341358, https://doi.org/10.1179/030801811X13160755918688.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fischer, E. V. , and Coauthors, 2012: Is pretenure interdisciplinary research a career risk? Eos, Trans. Amer. Geophys. Union, 93, 311312, https://doi.org/10.1029/2012EO320004.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gao, J. , Y. Yin , K. R. Myers , K. R. Lakhani , and D. Wang , 2021: Potentially long-lasting effects of the pandemic on scientists. Nat. Commun., 12, 6188, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-021-26428-z.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gutmann, E. D. , and Coauthors, 2018: Changes in hurricanes from a 13-yr convection-permitting pseudo–global warming simulation. J. Climate, 31, 36433657, https://doi.org/10.1175/JCLI-D-17-0391.1.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hardy, R. D. , 2021: A sharing meanings approach for interdisciplinary hazards research. Risk Anal., 41, 11621170, https://doi.org/10.1111/risa.13216.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hauer, M. , 2019: Population projections for US counties by age, sex, and race controlled to shared socioeconomic pathway. Sci. Data, 6, 190005, https://doi.org/10.1038/sdata.2019.5.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hauer, M. , 2021: Georeferenced U.S. county-level population projections, total and by sex, race and age, based on the SSPs (2020–2100), version 1. NASA SEDAC, accessed 25 February 2022, https://doi.org/10.7927/dv72-s254.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kopp, R. E. , R. M. Horton , C. M. Little , J. X. Mitrovica , M. Oppenheimer , D. J. Rasmussen , B. H. Strauss , and C. Tebaldi , 2014: Probabilistic 21st and 22nd century sea‐level projections at a global network of tide‐gauge sites. Earth’s Future, 2, 383406, https://doi.org/10.1002/2014EF000239.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kueffer, C. , and Coauthors, 2012: Enabling effective problem-oriented research for sustainable development. Ecol. Soc., 17, 8, https://doi.org/10.5751/ES-05045-170408.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Luettich, R. A., Jr., J. J. Westerink , and N. W. Scheffner , 1992: ADCIRC: An advanced three-dimensional circulation model for shelves, coasts, and estuaries—Report 1: Theory and methodology of ADCIRC-2DD1 and ADCIRC-3DL. Dredging Research Program Tech. Rep. DRP-92-6, 137 pp.

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  • Fig. 1.

    Schematic of a hypothetical coastal region including the subject matter of each cohort 1 project.

  • Fig. 2.

    Mapping of cohort 2 projects (within quadrants of the circle) onto actionable science themes in the NCAR Strategic Plan (rectangles with matching colors).

  • Fig. 3.

    Schematic showing the intersecting network of social scientists, physical scientists, and stakeholders for convergent research, against the backdrop of agency or institutional priorities and participation of communities that may be misaligned in some situations.

  • Fig. SB1.

    The key drivers of flood-induced outmigration in rural and urban coastal areas of Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina identified via interviews with decision-makers.

  • Fig. SB2.

    Changes to the number of people from marginalized racial and ethnic groups affected by a Hurricane Sandy event at the end of the century assuming climate change conditions and various population growth scenarios.

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