Interdisciplinary Research – Mind the Gap

Prof Terry Young, University of Brunel, recently drew the CLAHRC WM Director’s attention to a series of articles on Interdisciplinary Research in the journal Nature.[1-5] Terry directed the successful Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Multidisciplinary Assessment of Technology Centre for Healthcare (MATCH), which was based on collaborations between health economics, social science, mathematics and engineering. The aim was to devise methods to improve selection and exploitation of promising ideas in the device industry. He is therefore interested in fostering interdisciplinary research.

An important facilitator/barrier to interdisciplinary research can be found in the notion of ‘intellectual distance’ between disciplines. The gap between disciplines such as economics and statistics or journalism and literature is small. In addition, certain disciplines underpin others – mathematics is an essential tool across a range of disciplines. We have argued that philosophy should underpin all serious study – a recent blog post refers.[6]

But when distance widens further – sociology and nanotechnology, say, or poetry and neuroimaging, then it is more difficult to straddle the intellectual gap. CLAHRCs tackle problems that are inherently multi-disciplinary and so are accustomed to working across boundaries. However, collaborations are most productive when scientists are genuinely interdisciplinary and not just a collection of freestanding (multidisciplinary) projects. Top researchers are so called ‘T-shaped’, having depth of knowledge in one area and breadth across many.

However, we must also remember that interdisciplinary work is a means to an end and not an end in itself; it should not be fetishised. At some point in the development of nanotechnology, sociological issues may emerge. ‘T-shaped’ researchers will recognise when this moment arises and premature attempts to generate or incentivise collaboration can be annoying and wasteful.

That said, there are times where basic science and art can enrich each other, as we shall explore in the next issue of the News Blog.

— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director

References:

  1. Viseu A. Integration of Social Science into Research is Crucial. Nature. 2015; 525:291.
  2. Van Noorden R. Interdisciplinary Research by the Numbers: An Analysis Reveals the Extent and Impact of Research that Bridges Disciplines. 2015; 525:306-7.
  3. Ledford H. How to Solve the World’s Biggest Problems. Nature. 2015; 525:308-11.
  4. Rylance R. Global giving: Global funders to focus on interdisciplinarity. 2015; 525:313-5.
  5. Brown RR, Deletic A, Wong THF. Interdisciplinarity: How to catalyse collaboration. Nature. 2015; 525:315-7.
  6. Lilford R. Where is the Philosophy of Science in Research Methodology? CLAHRC WM News Blog. 9 October 2015.
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