Facilitating Integration in Interdisciplinary Research: Lessons from a South Florida Water, Sustainability, and Climate Project

Environ Manage. 2018 Dec;62(6):1025-1037. doi: 10.1007/s00267-018-1099-1. Epub 2018 Aug 31.


Interdisciplinary research is increasingly called upon to find solutions to complex sustainability problems, yet co-creating usable knowledge can be challenging. This article offers broad lessons for conducting interdisciplinary science from the South Florida Water, Sustainability, and Climate Project (SFWSC), a 5-year project funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF). The goal was to develop a holistic decision-making framework to improve understanding of the complex natural-social system of South Florida water allocation and its threats from climate change, including sea level rise, using a water resources optimization model as an integration mechanism. The SFWSC project faced several challenges, including uncertainty with tasks, high task interdependence, and ensuring communication among geographically dispersed members. Our hypothesis was that adaptive techniques would help overcome these challenges and maintain scientific rigor as research evolved. By systematically evaluating the interdisciplinary management approach throughout the project, we learned that integration can be supported by a three-pronged approach: (1) Build a well-defined team and leadership structure for collaboration across geographic distance and disciplines, ensuring adequate coordination funding, encouraging cross-pollination, and allowing team structure to adapt; (2) intentionally design a process and structure for facilitating collaboration, creating mechanisms for routine analysis, and incorporating collaboration tools that foster communication; and (3) support integration within the scientific framework, by using a shared research output, and encouraging team members to adapt when facing unanticipated constraints. These lessons contribute to the international body of knowledge on interdisciplinary research and can assist teams attempting to develop sustainable solutions in complex natural-social systems.

Keywords: Adaptive management; Collaboration; Interdisciplinary science; Knowledge co-production; Team science.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Climate Change
  • Conservation of Water Resources*
  • Decision Making
  • Florida
  • Humans
  • Interdisciplinary Communication
  • Interdisciplinary Research* / organization & administration
  • Leadership
  • Water / chemistry


  • Water