The case against interdisciplinarity

August 5, 2010 § 2 Comments

One of the minor joys of writing this blog is that people send me interesting opinion or ideas pieces — pieces that they found inspirational or important — that I haven’t previously read.  If I don’t have time to write about them at that moment, I print them out, put them in a file, and promise myself I’ll get back to them later.  From now on, I plan to note who sent them before filing them, because I can’t currently recall who sent me this particular suggestion.  (Whoever you are*, if you’re reading this, thank you!)  It’s an opinion piece from Sean Eddy (Eddy SR (2005) “Antedisciplinary” Science. PLoS Comput Biol 1(1): e6. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.0010006), reacting to a statement in the NIH “Roadmap” that the complexity of biomedical problems now requires “new organizational models for team science” — teams of people drawn from different disciplines, that is.

I remember reading that section of the Roadmap when it came out and wincing.  Having been to one of the meetings NIH organized to get advice about how to encourage interdisciplinary science, I had seen some of the discussion leading up to this publication.  It all reminded me of a comment in a short story by one of my favorite humorists: “The cook was a great believer in the influence of environment, and nourished an obstinate conviction that if you brought rabbit and curry-powder together in one dish a rabbit curry would be the result.”

Doing something genuinely new requires a considerable amount of mutual education and a substantial level of commitment, and bringing two disciplines together isn’t enough.  If you launch a committed multi-disciplinary attack on a problem, it may start off as a collaboration but in the best cases what comes out is a new way of looking at a problem.  In those cases the interdisciplinary boundaries eventually begin to fade, and you start talking about yourself as a computational biologist, or (during the time of an earlier wave of immigration from physics into biology) a molecular biologist, or even a systems biologist.  You may choose to stop at some point in that trajectory and retain your identity as a practitioner of a single discipline, and this is certainly OK.  But Eddy argues that interdisciplinary teams, combining existing skills to solve a defined problem, will only get you so far; what we often need instead is interdisciplinary people, inventing new ways to look at the world.

It’s a brilliant piece — compelling, witty, and carefully argued — and I had to restrain myself from shouting “Yes!” at several points.  [Not only is shouting out loud while reading un-English, it also startles the cats.]   I’ll give you a couple of my favorite quotes as teasers, but really, go and read the whole thing. It’s short.  And it’s not even behind a paywall.

“[T]he phrase “organizational models for team science” makes me imagine a factory floor of scientists toiling away on their next 100-author paper under the watchful gaze of their National Institutes of Health program officers, like some scene from Terry Gilliam’s movie Brazil.”

“Expecting a team of disciplinary scientists to develop a new field is like sending a team of monolingual diplomats to the United Nations.”

“Perhaps the whole idea of interdisciplinary science is the wrong way to look at what we want to encourage. What we really mean is “antedisciplinary” science—the science that precedes the organization of new disciplines, the Wild West frontier stage that comes before the law arrives.”

*Update: It was Jagesh Shah.  Thanks, Jag!

§ 2 Responses to The case against interdisciplinarity

  • Marc Kirschner says:

    Sean Eddy’s short opinion piece had a genuine ring to it. Administrators, sociologists, institute directors, have to believe that organizing people is all important. It is certainly of some importance but I am firm believer that it is education and opportunity surrounding individuals that has the greatest impact on new discoveries. Although study sections and NIH officials will bristle at this, I believe we need more partially trained but curious researchers willing to transcend their own backgrounds in search of some imperfectly enunciated goals. The errors these people will make will be insignificant compared to the innovations and insights that will follow. To charge into new territory unprepared takes a confidence and determination and willingness to take risks. There are of course great explorers and foolhardy adventurers. We don’t hear so much about the latter, as they have a tendency to capsize and drown. But if we did not have dreamy romantics life in science would be very different. Most of us when we encounter new difficulties find ways to learn what we need to survive. Teams of technicians may have been what was needed to go to the moon or sequence the genome, but it would not have brought us the double helix, general relativity, genetics, or the tetrahedral carbon atom.

  • […] I don’t think this necessarily equates to the statement Becky made in her earlier post that in the best cases what comes out is a new way of looking at the […]

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