Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The myth of "interdisciplinarity"

The great buzz word in research applications is “interdisciplinarity”.  Often research councils frame their invitations to applicants in terms which make it seem that they favour interdisciplinary research. And of course there is much that speaks in favour of such research. In a way, it has been happening slowly and almost imperceptibly at universities. Departments have changed their names and their structures as well to reflect this fact, or so they believe.

In truth, interdisciplinarity is just a word used to soothe the conscience of funding bodies that they are “with it” in the world of modern research. In fact, a recent report from Australia shows that the chances of being funded for an inter-disciplinary project are significantly less than that in mono-disciplines. Interdisciplinarity, it seems, often means nothing more than combining neuroanatomy with neuropathology, or neurochemistry with neuropharmacology, or parallel studies in English and German Romantic literature.

But try to combine science with the humanities (e.g. neurobiology with mathematics, or physics with philosophy) and you will end up against a brick wall.

In fact the British Academy has set up an investigation into interdisciplinarity in higher education and research, a sure sign that the buzz word  has not had much effect.

The reason for this is to be sought, so we are told, in the structure of the committees that oversee funding and there is no doubt that this is partly true. When applying for a grant, the applicant must choose a panel that will decide the fate of the application, but the panels are often composed of people who are highly specialized in their fields. There are some examples when the funding agencies seek to cross the border and seek opinion from the “other” field. But this is somewhat rare. Hence, interdisciplinary applications commonly fail, with utterly banal "feed-back" to the applicants, such as “you have not convinced the committee that this is transformative research” or “you have not made a case for incorporating humanities into your work”. Often the work is thus dismissed through the “triage” system overseen by those who have little understanding of the "other" discipline, without going to referees for a full appraisal.

The dearth of genuine inter-disciplinary research is also reflected in the dearth of journals which publish articles that genuinely cross disciplines.

There is another, and unacknowledged, factor that impedes interdisciplinarity -  territoriality.  Many, especially in the humanities, are consciously or unconsciously resentful of the incursion of sciences into what they regard to be their discipline; they fear being relegated into second-class participants. Scientists, on the other hand, have a general tendency to dismiss research in the humanities as not having the high standards of proof that they claim for their own fields.

I naturally do not want to tar all scientists and humanists with the same brush. There are many, many honourable exceptions in both camps; but they remain exceptions.

This territoriality, I suggest, is perhaps an even more important factor in impeding the progress of inter-disciplinarity. It is also much more difficult to combat because it operates silently. After all, no member of any panel is going to declare publicly that “this application is trespassing into my field”

Hence, research councils must protect themselves against that but it is not an easy task.

Of course, any changes to the structural and administrative organization of funding councils will take years. Meanwhile, for those increasing number of young researchers who are enthusiastic about research that crosses boundaries, because in the world of knowledge there are no such artifical boundaries, there is this word of advice – don’t waste your time applying to the research councils for big cross-disciplinary research. Try instead some other source  – for example big companies which see a commercial return from funding such research.Better still, identify a wise and enlightened benefactor - a sort of modern Lorenzo de' Medici, if you can find one.

It may be cynical to say so; it is certainly sad.

But it is also true, and will remain true until such time as the research councils wake up and realise that research aspirations have changed beyond recognition while they were snoozing.