Synthesis Begins: From Little Things…

Published by timdean on

Interdisciplinary research (IDR) is hard. But it can be improved. And there are a few ways to improve it that haven’t been tried in earnest yet.

That’s the upshot of the first meeting of the interdisciplinary research group, tentatively toying with the title Synthesis.

In attendance were myself, Tim Dean (philosophy PhD & science journalist); John Wilkins (philosopher of biology); Tibor Molnar (philosopher and engineer); Nigel Cadogan (mathematician); David Kidd (information science; publisher; journalist).

Challenges of IDR

We first discussed IDR broadly and acknowledging that our own forays into IDR have proven to be halting affairs for manifold reasons. At the top of the list is that academia simply isn’t built to handle ideas that cross more than a couple of disciplinary boundaries.

The structure of contemporary academia is such that each discipline is neatly siloed, hammering away at its own problems and happily outputting to its specialist journals. This approach is safe, the institutions know where to put people (biologists go in the biosciences building), the funding bodies know how to fund it (biologists get money for biology), the researchers know where to publish (biology journals).

However, step outside the bounds of this machine and things start to break down. If a particular question is best answered by individuals from three or more different departments, the academy just puts it in the too hard basket. There are few or no facilities to encourage interaction between disciplines. Communication is difficult. Funding bodies don’t know how to judge the merit of the research. And journals shy away from any content that isn’t explicitly within their remit.

On top of this, there exist not inconsiderable cultural barriers to IDR. Presently two or more researchers have to initiate contact of their own accord in a bi-lateral manner, decide on the nature and boundaries of their joint research programme, negotiate leadership and decide how the outcomes will be reported, which usually means deciding which specialist journal will see the results. This, in turn, means that at least one of the researchers has a publication with their name on it in a journal way outside of their field. Some institutions even frown on such marks in one’s C.V. when one goes looking for work.

What works

This isn’t to say that all cross-disciplinary research is folly. In fact, there are examples of institutions that have embraced IDR – or even been established with IDR explicitly in mind. One we discussed was the Santa Fe Institute which, according to its website, was “founded in 1984, for multidisciplinary collaborations in the physical, biological, computational, and social sciences.”

Although what’s interesting about Santa Fe is that it’s not approaching IDR to solve a particular real world problem – such as how do you improve public health in cities, or how to you adapt to climate change. Its entry point to IDR is through ‘complexity.’ This is interesting because complexity is a phenomenon that occurs at all levels of explanation, so it lends itself to analysis from specialists in multiple disciplines.

This is one possible way to make IDR work – using a system as a fulcrum – although it is relatively limited. Studying systems – say complexity, evolution or game theory – could work by bringing together researchers from multiple fields. However it only elaborates the nature of that system: that particular method of abstraction.

Furthermore, Santa Fe is an institution explicitly formed to study complexity, but we’d rather not have to build an entire institution to study every individual cross-disciplinary issue we’d like to look at.

Another approach – the approach that appears more challenging today – is to start with a real world problem and bring together researchers from whichever disciplines can contribute to its solution.

Improving IDR

We also shared ideas on how IDR could be improved. The general consensus was that top-down only approaches were bound to fail, such as the voice from the top of many institutions today that praises the idea of IDR, but fails to put in place any mechanisms to facilitate it, or even to not punish researchers from engaging in it.

Rather the landscape of research needs to be adjusted so IDR flourishes in a bottom-up way. It must be such that a researcher can engage in IDR without compromising their specialist research, without sacrificing time and energy on pursuits that retard their career and without falling foul of the culture barriers that exist today.

However, to do this, there will probably need to be some top-down tweaks to the research landscape itself – things like changing the way funding bodies work, how journals accept papers and how employers view IDR on C.V.s.

This means funding bodies need to broaden their committees to include at least one that crosses all disciplines. This doesn’t mean having experts in everything, but having people who are able to assess the merits of a particular question and review the approach suggested by an IDR team.

This also means that journals need to exist to allow an outlet for IDR. We discussed two approaches to such journals. One is an inward-looking journal that discusses IDR as a concept, how it is conducted, how disciplines interrelate, how they communicate and how to better facilitate IDR. This gives an outlet for those who are interested in promoting and facilitating IDR.

The second is one or more outward-looking journals that centre around certain questions or problems, and invite papers from any researchers from any disciplines who can contribute. It is explicitly IDR friendly, and structured in such a way as non-specialists can read and comprehend it.

It was acknowledged that Science and Nature were once considered such journals, but they aren’t as cross-disciplinary as they could be. While they publish on many fields, each paper is still a specialist paper and still nigh impenetrable to those outside that specific discipline or sub-discipline. Instead, Science and Nature have simply become the highest profile journals for all disciplines rather than journals for interdisciplinarity.

A website to facilitate IDR was also suggested, based around a dating model. It would allow researcher to sign up, list their interests and specialities and the questions they’re interested in. The site could then join researchers who might have a synergy and would enable them to get together to embark on some IDR. However, such a site still works in a bi-lateral way and still requires individual researchers to negotiate working with individuals outside their field. However, it could be integrated into a larger framework for IDR.

Another fix for IDR discussed was the notion proposed by myself of a new massively-interdisciplinary meta-discipline tentatively called Synthesis, which consists of specially trained individuals who’s job it is to understand the workings of IDR and to actively facilitate IDR. A United Nations of IDR, if you will.

These specialist-generalists will be expert at communicating between disciplines, and will be able to take a question and actively seek out relevant researchers and will facilitate their interaction. These Synthesists will then be the single point of contact for attracting funding and for coordinating research efforts according to an established framework for how IDR can best be conducted.

This takes the load off the specialist researchers of coordinating the project and enables them to get down to what they do best: research. The Synthesists would also coordinate the outputs, attempting to produce multiple publications in both specialist and IDR journals, as well as publishing in the inward-looking IDR journals talking about lessons learned and discussing how these disciplines and the topic at hand interrelate.

Where next?

A lot was discussed, with many ideas put forward as to the ills of IDR and how it can be improved. What was agreed was that no one fix alone will see IDR flourish. Instead a range of changes need to be made to the way academia and funding bodies operate, how journals accept material and possibly even the creation of a new massively-interdisciplinary discipline to facilitate IDR. But there are no conceptual barriers to any of these initiatives.

This means the next step is actually a number of steps. On the one hand, new journals will have to be created, and John Wilkins suggested that there is the possibility of doing just this.

It also means a conversation with academic institutions and funding bodies about how IDR is and should be conducted and rewarded. Particularly the funding bodies, and having them become more aware of how to handle IDR grant applications.

As a first step, there needs to be a ‘mission statement’ of sorts about the goals of IDR, and the goals of Synthesis. I will endeavour to draft such a mission statement shortly and have it presented for criticism at the next meeting.

Once the goals of the IDR group and of Synthesis are more galvanised, the following step is to engage in promotion. This means recruiting many more academics, particularly high profile individuals who can act as advocates for IDR and possibly for Synthesis.

Shortly we will meet again to discuss in more detail the roadmap and what each individual can actually do to promote the cause of IDR and Synthesis.

In the mean time, I will be presenting a paper at the International Journal of Arts & Sciences conference in Aix-en-Provence on the problems of IDR and the proposal of a massively-interdisciplinary meta-discipline. Hopefully that will attract some constructive criticism and ideas that will help the notion progress in more concrete terms.

If you have any comments, ideas or suggestions, please feel free to let me know.

And stay tuned for the next interdisciplinary research group!


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