Confocal microscopy, deploying knowledge of quantum physics to biological imaging Wikimedia: Howard Vindin

Interdisciplinarity as a principle is transforming how science is done yet, both past and present, has often proved difficult to execute. I spoke to Professor Dame Athene Donald, Professor of Experimental Physics working at the interface with biology, Master of Churchill college, and chair of the Interdisciplinary Research Advisory Panel for the Research Excellence Framework (REF), to discuss the excitements and challenges of interdisciplinarity.

Interdisciplinary science, says Donald, is important because the disciplines defined at a given time necessarily change: “we cannot simply do science sticking in the silos that are happened to be defined say in Victorian times; that’s just not going to work.” She gives the example of the Laboratory for Molecular Biology, which was essentially founded by the the seminal work of Watson and Crick. “Crick was in the Physics department, then a whole new discipline grew from that.”

 “You cannot easily set up interdisciplinary collaborations. It takes time, it takes effort, you have to want to do it”

Dame Athene Donald

Entering interdisciplinary science coincides with a series of inherent challenges: “you speak a different language, you use different techniques, so if you want to collaborate with someone in a different discipline, it’s not straightforward.” This process, suggests Donald, isn’t straight forward: “you cannot easily set up interdisciplinary collaborations. It takes time, it takes effort, you have to want to do it.” Beyond language barriers, Donald speaks of how the preconceptions of academic peers may add to these difficulties. “You may be regarded as maverick by your colleagues, who think that the only thing that matters is this very pure kind of science, so you’ve got to be able to find a way of convincing them that what you are doing is important and worthwhile. So when I started working at the interface between physics and biology, I definitely got very negative comments from my colleagues. And now it’s seen as a very exciting area, sort of 20-25 years later.”

Social difficulties aside, working at the interfaces has lead to challenges of a more institutional nature. “If you’re a physicist and trying to do something at the intersection with biology, it may be that the physics is not in itself cutting edge, and the biology is not in itself cutting edge, but the synergy between the two is what is really exciting. And I think it is very difficult for disciplinary panels to evaluate that.” The REF, one of the key publications that compare research quality across institutions, evaluates outputs according to disciplines, meaning there was a lack of confidence, suggests Donald, in submitting interdisciplinary work. “What the analysis of the last round of the REF showed was that where people did interdisciplinary research, it was judged to be as good as the monodisciplinary stuff, but the volume submitted under that heading was much less than expected.”

Donald chairs the Interdisciplinary Advisory Panel for the REF which is aiming to get over this ‘silo mentality’ which seems to be systemic within science. “We are hoping to get around [these challenges] by having nominated individuals on each panel, who have that specific responsibility. And so part of this is to give confidence to the community that interdisciplinary research will be fairly judged.” Their work is still in its early stages, but Donald seems positive about the impact of the panel’s output: “I am pretty confidence they are going to pay heed to what we are going to say and are really taking seriously. They are very concerned by this themselves because they recognise that this is an important area that perhaps didn’t fare as well as it might have done last time.”


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As with any change in a well established and populated community, the suggestions of the Interdisciplinary Advisory Panel, foresees Donald, will likely have mixed reviews. “I say people won’t like whatever we recommend, that was just partly reflecting the fact that if you come from a department say that happens to be pretty monolithic and not interdisciplinary and you suddenly see there’s this option to describe how your department tackles interdisciplinarity they feel ‘well why did they introduce that.’” Donald emphasises that departments will not be penalised for monodisciplinarity, rather “it’s more an opportunity to talk about it if you do.”

An interdisciplinary mindset is shaped in part through education, and Donald emphasises how liberating Cambridge’s Natural Sciences Tripos is in this respect. “In a sense when you first come here, you don’t have to say ‘I’m a physical scientist or a biological scientist’, you can straddle both, which is unlike most other universities… You don’t have to decide at 17 or so on, ‘this is what I want to do.’” She however emphasises the importance of “learning the tools of a particular trade. It is important to develop the sort of critical skills in one fairly narrow area so you become very conscious about what makes good science.” Yet education, Donald suggests, isn’t necessarily a matter of sequentially closing doors and narrowing paths, suggesting the most critical time for pursuing interdisciplinary science is at PHD. She notes that today such pathways to interdisciplinarity need not be an uphill struggle, “you just have to be conscious of it. It’s perhaps sort of, in a lazy kind of way, easier to stay with something you already know.”

Interdisciplinarity within science is starting to produce some truly fascinating findings, from the collaboration of quantum physicists with biologists in quantum biology to the application of the engineering mindset to the life sciences in synthetic biology. As Donald suggests, “I think a lot of the exciting stuff now is at the interfaces and will continue to be”