Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Interdisciplinary Research and Environmental Law

In my second year as an academic, I became involved in a major NSF-funded interdisciplinary research project.  Initially, this did not go well.  I learned, the hard way, that it is not easy to conduct interdisciplinary research with people you’ve barely met, who work in other fields, and who live two hours’ drive away from you.  Yet I would count the project—in which I am still involved, now more productively—as one of the best learning experiences of my academic career.

That experience convinced me that it would be useful to write an article addressing the challenges of interdisciplinary environmental law research.  It also led me to think that the standard debates about interdisciplinary legal research might not apply particularly well to environmental law, and that perhaps some empirical research might help inform those debates.  So I distributed a survey to my peers, conducted some interviews, and, working with UMaine economist Caroline Noblet, wrote up an article, which now is available (in draft form) here

Our hope is that the article will be useful to environmental law faculty—particularly at the junior level—who are interested in getting into interdisciplinary work; to non-legal environmental researchers who want some information about what environmental law professors do and how they think; and to anyone who wants to pontificate in an informed way about the role of interdisciplinary research in the legal academy.

For those who prefer the Cliff Notes version, here are a few key conclusions from the study (most of which are intuitive but some of which are potentially surprising or controversial):

- Environmental law professors are generally very interested in conducting interdisciplinary research, yet it forms a relatively small part of their research portfolios;

- Conducting interdisciplinary research successfully requires a large up-front time investment—you need to take time to get to know your collaborators and learn about their fields, and they have to get to know you—and the need for that time investment is one of the primary barriers to successful collaborations;

- Publication systems and institutional divisions do create pressure toward traditional disciplinary work (in other words, the legal academy generally doesn't push professors to become interdisciplinarians);

- Compared to tenured faculty, junior faculty tend to perceive more pressure to do traditional disciplinary work, though that pressure is by no means universally felt; and

- Law professors may be more interested in, and prepared for, collaborations with non-lawyers than the non-lawyers are for collaborations with lawyers.

And a few recommendations:

- Law schools and universities should work hard to create opportunities for informal contact between law professors and other faculty—in research settings, social settings, and in the classroom;

- Law schools ought to abandon any tenure or promotion policies that favor law review or single-author publications over peer-reviewed or team publications, and they ought to put their new policies in writing, so that junior faculty know about them;

- Visiting assistant professor and fellowship programs should consider adding an instructional component focused on research methodologies (and, perhaps, allowing full-time faculty to participate in the program);

- Law professors interested in working beyond the boundaries of their field should be aware that they will need to spend some time educating their potential partners about how legal research works, what kinds of questions it typically focuses upon, and how it could contribute to a larger project.

Again, the full article is here, and comments are welcome.

-Dave Owen

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