In the July-August 2022 issue of American Scientist, Mark Moritz and Nicholas C. Kawa published an article: “The world needs wicked scientists.” In the article, Moritz and Kawa discuss how the intricacies of today’s world have led to a rise in so-called “wicked problems,” ones that are both complex and political in nature.
These problems, the scholars argue, demand “wicked scientists” to unravel them. That is, people with transdisciplinary training that allows them to think beyond their primary field in the search for solutions to issues like food insecurity, COVID-19 and economic inequality.
“It’s easy to think a problem is just technical and not recognize the political dynamics,” said Moritz, professor in The Ohio State University Department of Anthropology. “If you don’t consider these dynamics, you will not be able to address the problem. You will overlook some of the more important things.”
With this thinking in mind, Moritz led the effort to create a graduate interdisciplinary specialization (GIS) in “wicked science.” The specialization is available to all graduate and professional students.
“With this program, we train students to tackle these wicked problems and make a difference in the world,” he said.
Graduate students will take four classes that focus on transdisciplinary thinking and, just as important, collaborative team dynamics. Moritz is a staunch proponent of skills like conflict resolution, flexibility and reflexivity, what many people call “soft skills,” and sees them as critical to wicked science work.
“The idea is that if you want to work in teams, you need to work with people. If you cannot do that, you’re doomed to fail,” he said. “These competencies are really important. ‘Soft skills’ is kind of a misnomer because these are really hard skills.”
David Hibler, a doctoral student studying evolutional ecology and organismal biology, has taken two of the classes that are part of the GIS.
“[The courses] teach you how to work together with other specialists, how to consider community and stakeholder perspectives, values and needs and how to engage various communities to tackle these large, emergent issues that we are seeing develop in society.”
Hibler recommends the courses without hesitation and has found them to be useful as he prepares for the working world.
“My career will center on public health problems and I can’t do that without being able to work in transdisciplinary teams,” he said. “We need students that are not only excellent at work in their own fields but that are also capable of taking that excellence and working with people outside of their own area.”
Lydia Wisne, a third-year medical anthropology student, is working with Moritz to create an undergraduate certificate for wicked science so more students can participate in this innovative program. For Wisne, developing skills to attack the wicked problems of the day helps combat their overwhelming nature.
“I think some undergraduates are trying to find meaning in their work,” she said. “We see the issues in our world, like climate change and COVID-19, and sometimes those big problems can make us feel hopeless. We want to make a difference and wicked science is a way to start that journey.”
Wisne notes that the emphasis on collaboration in the wicked science program would benefit any participant, including those that do not go on to pursue the problems professionally.
“The goals of discovery, understanding and solution-building can help students build their humility and compassion,” she said. “I’d hope participants would grow into people who make the world a better place, even in small ways.”
Moritz agreed. Wicked science is not meant to replace traditional disciplinary training, he said.
“This is another set of skills: You can leverage your training to tackle problems in a team of people with diverse perspectives. … The more diverse perspectives, the better.”