Call for interdisciplinary research

Edith Heard writing for Financial Times:

Interdisciplinarity isn’t new. Consider Marie Skłodowska Curie, the physicist and chemist who discovered radium. She applied X-rays to medical purposes during the first world war and set up the Institut Curie, which incorporated basic science (physics, chemistry, biology) alongside hospital care.

Multidisciplinary research offers new approaches and richer outcomes — sometimes unforeseen. Likewise, infrastructure designed for one purpose often lends itself to another. When existing tools are optimised for multiple purposes, it paves the way for creative collaboration.

There is an increasing trend of directors writing in Financial Times about the “advantages” of science. They are making all right noises around “improving funding”. Scientific research mandate doesn’t come with a blank cheque. It requires demonstrable benefits.

I have been thinking on these lines for long – how do we determine the beneficial outcomes? I think science should provide qualitative inputs to economic models (more productivity, manufacturing, real rise of incomes) than push the banality of pursuing flying cars. There are several overlapping threads on what constitutes “progress” and how it needs to be measured. The enduring success of American systems is the close coupling between industry and academia, but it translates from defence spending and research to the public. The internet, for example, was a US Navy project. Radiation Therapy was a spin off from the Manhattan Project. However, the real gains of biomedical science (e.g. cancer research) have not been equally successful, barring “pharmaceutical fuelled targeted mania”. Expensive medical treatments (even if covered by insurance) serve as rent-seeking arrangements from developing countries.

It is a lesson for the global south to align the incentives around research by understanding the priority areas and then creating specific policy frameworks. Look at Fintech. I heard about lost stimulus cheques in the US, while in India, direct transfer was initiated into beneficiary accounts during the ongoing pandemic. Person-to-Person (P2P) payments are instantaneous and secure. M-Pesa stands out as another example. While creating fintech platforms and implementing them with clarity of purpose, it ensures economic growth and entrepreneurship. Edith Heard makes a coherent case for interdisciplinary science, but they also represent another unseen problem hiding in plain sight – academic gatekeeping.

This crisis is an opportunity for change. For science, that change is not what we do, but how we do it. We need a paradigm shift that incentivises and drives collaboration and that means addressing an outmoded approach to funding. The emergency funds allocated during the pandemic can’t be a one-off — science needs consistent investment to prepare for upcoming global threats.

As again, it is not a black swan event and I won’t enter the politicisation of the “science debate” with China repeatedly stonewalling attempts to understand the source. However, using this opportunity to increase funding won’t cut. When there are competing priorities, Financial Times is merely providing a platform to swing public opinion. They need to focus instead on how to cut bureaucracy in universities and academia, and improve distillation of ideas from an inclusive approach.