On Interdisciplinarity: Is Science too disciplined?

On Interdisciplinarity: Is Science too disciplined?

- 6 mins

The following essay is the discussion of my paper for this class, entitled Exploring Interdisciplinary Science and Graduate Training.

Having been a part of an interdisciplinary training program for two years, I would like to discuss my observations and learning so far. In the area of the life sciences, beyond the obvious commonality in studying the processes of life, there seems to be little in terms of unity along its breadth. At the classical end of biology, fields like botany and zoology have been reduced to mere descriptions of vast areas within themselves. The traditional field of taxonomy and systematics is now reliant on modern technology like genomics platforms (to identify and classify organisms uniquely). Field ecology, which went hand in hand with systematics in the past, is increasingly finding remarkable partnerships in fields ranging from animal behavior and cognitive science, to conservation and biodiversity studies. In these areas, technology has opened up new universes for exploration, from imaging the deepest waters of the ocean, to studying bacteria that live in the clouds and cause precipitation. (This work is being done here at Virginia Tech.) In terms of organismal biology, the study of organs and organ systems has become purely the domain of bioengineering, with numerous groups all around the world attempting to shed light on the (mal)functioning of organs in various disease (and health) contexts by creating artificial organs. This whole area of research has been possible solely due to massive advances in material science, electronics and biochemistry. Moving down the scale of size, the fields of cell and molecular biology are focal to almost all other organismal research, providing mechanistic insight into the functioning of cells at different scales. It is important to remember that the entire field of molecular biology is the result of physicists investigating the biochemical nature of genetic material. Cell biology as a field has evolved in sync with advancements in microscopy, which has progressed from being purely opto-mechanical contraptions in the days of Robert Hooke, to sophisticated million-dollar equipments which integrate physics, microelectronics and sophisticated computing to probe ever greater depths in terms of biophysical detail. And then there are fields which have arisen out of the ever increasing volumes of biological data. Genomics, hailed to be the new interdisciplinary field that would change the world after the Human Genome Project is now a common tool used to generate data from increasingly intricate biological measurements, thanks to advances in sequencing technology. Bioinformatics, which used to be interfacial between computer science and biology is now recognized as a distinct area of research. Areas like molecular systems biology, computational epidemiology, biophysics, and network biology draw inspiration from physics, mathematics and computer science to probe complex biological phenomena at many different scales of length and time.

The examples above reveal something fundamental about the way research is carried out in the life sciences today. The research questions remain biological, but the tools used are purely interdisciplinary. Biology courses tend to offer training in these methods in two forms, a practical course with little theoretical background aimed at teaching students to use them, and advanced courses, possibly from other domains, that will give students the theoretical basis to explore the tools in their own right, and potentially develop them further. The major developments in research come with the introduction to new tools. Famous examples of this in molecular biology would be the introduction of the Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) that would aid in visualization of subcellular structures, and more recently, the perfection of the CRISPR/Cas9 technique that aids in gene editing. Both these discoveries were made by scientists trained in vastly different areas of science. (Roger Tsien who discovered GFP was trained as a chemist and a physicist, and Jennifer Doudna, famous for demonstrating Cas9 editing trained as a biochemist. There are countless other examples of revolutionary tools being introduced by scientists from different areas.)

It would appear that almost all of biological research in the last half century has been possible due to technological improvements, and contributions from other fields. If this trend, which is by definition Schmidt’s methodological interdisciplinarity, has been consistently followed for the better half of the century, then why is the notion of interdisciplinarity perceived as being novel? If fields that were considered novel and interdisciplinary 30 years ago are now mainstream, students 30 years ago must have received training in those fields to the adequate extent that today they are perceived to be mainstream. This observation implies that the attitude of resistance, or the perceived resistance to novel approaches (apart from scientific skepticism) has its source outside of academia. Without an in depth survey about the trends in terms of funding that various projects have received over the past three decades, I would hypothesize that the bottleneck in terms of “acceptable” research in a given department are a combination of pressures from funding sources, and department mission statements which affect hiring policies. My contention is that it is not the science that is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary; by definition, there is no way to predict where scientific breakthroughs come from. Rather, it is the departments in which science is done that are becoming increasingly specific in their requirements, both in terms of the qualifications of faculty as well as the area(s) of research that they support. I believe that the creation of more programs focussing on finer and finer slices of scientific interfaces under the garb of interdisciplinarity seeks only to further exacerbate the division of research focus in departments. I believe that the rhetoric around interdisciplinary research has developed around areas that attract industry funding to accelerate hiring and training in specific areas (like translational medicine) and due to the sudden profusion of cross-disciplinary tools that suddenly don’t fit in with traditional departments as they become narrower in their scope. I believe that one way out of this is by replacing small, interdisciplinary `programs’, with individual funding sources and governing bodies, with large umbrella programs that encompass significant areas of research spanning all four of Schmidt’s interdisciplinarities. These programs will facilitate real communication and will break up the dependence on rigid department structures that limit interaction between the artifical silos.

In conclusion, I having studied the various facets of the term interdisciplinarity and a case study that sheds light on the limited understanding of the term and its implications, I propose that the fad of interdisciplinarity, (which has existed since the 1970s at the very least) is here to stay, but the rigors of carrying out scientific research, drawing inspiration from various fields and contributing to the entire spectrum of study from the abstract to the applied will proceed as usual.

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