On Interdisciplinarity

On perusing some documentation in advance of a staff meeting recently, I noticed a suggestion that interdisciplinary degree programs should be used as an ‘output’ in their own right. The implication is that interdisciplinarity is something we should aspire to because, well, interdisciplinarity is self-evidently a good thing. Or is it?

The view that the future development of science (and the humanities) will occur at the boundaries between disciplines is widespread. It all sounds so plausible and we often hear stuff about the 21st century being different, requiring radically new perspectives and new ways of thinking. Indeed, interdisciplinary science is often favoured by research granting agencies and sometimes it is impossible to gain funding unless one collaborates with researchers from other disciplines. Some scientists are natural collaborators and this bias in the funding process does them no harm. Indeed, an academic can boost his or her output very significantly by forming collaborations. But being a collaborator is not quite the same as being an interdisciplinary scientist. Collaboration usually involves a group of people working on different aspects of a common problem.

So what about teaching?In my view, it is not possible to teach interdisciplinary science or interdisciplinary anything at undergraduate level. To be able to work on the border between disciplines, I think you need to have a thorough grasp of each of those disciplines. I was convinced of this as long ago as 1985 when I was a graduate student at Cornell University. There, I had a conversation one day with Mike Shuler, one of the founding fathers of the then embryonic field of biochemical engineering. During that conversation he explained how he insisted that all of his PhD students take quite a few formal courses in biology. It wasn’t possible, he stressed, to do high quality research in biochemical engineering unless one had strong foundations in both chemical engineering and biological sciences. It came as no surprise to me to hear that Shuler was noted for the rigour of his work, from both engineering and biology perspectives.

The harsh reality is that to become a scientist or engineer who works on the borders between disciplines, one needs to invest many years in becoming an expert in each of the relevant disciplines – or at least in large chunks of those disciplines. Not many people have the intellectual ability and the commitment to achieve the breadth of expertise required. Collaboration is probably the best we can do when problems of an interdisciplinary nature arise. Of course, we should not assume that all of the ‘best’ problems are to be found on the boundaries. Many of the great questions in science (in cosmology, for example) reside firmly within defined disciplines and people who choose to remain ensconced in their own field should not be viewed as simply reluctant to change.

A key point in all of this is the distinction between multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity. I have taught for many years on what was intended to be an interdisciplinary program but in reality it’s a multidisciplinary one. Our graduates nearly always pursue their careers in one of the disciplines that they study – usually biology. Very few emerge as interdisciplinary thinkers – I think that is beyond the vast majority of undergraduates. They tend to focus on the subject for which they have a natural aptitude. The value of the program is that it offers students a choice and a little bit of flexibility in the planning of their future careers.

It is interesting to note that in flagging a proposed move towards interdisciplinarity (or was it multidisciplinarity?) in its degree programs, NUIM’s President, Philip Nolan, was quoted some time ago as saying: “We want to combine different subject areas, to allow students to approach problems from two different perspectives; someone who combines computer science with geography can approach a problem as a computer scientist, but also as a social scientist.” I honestly don’t think it’ll work and the danger is that this kind of approach can provide students with insufficient grounding in anything.

I think we need to remember that disciplines exist for a good reason. A discipline is often underpinned by some core principles and methods and to really get to grips with the discipline, the student has to be immersed in those things. If you do a bit of this and a bit of that, even if those bits are reasonably substantial, the danger is that you provide insufficient immersion in at least one the disciplines that the student studies. In that case, the whole premise of the inter/multi-disciplinary approach is undermined.

PS Just noticed that another perspective on this topic that just appeared here.

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About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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One Response to On Interdisciplinarity

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » On Interdisciplinarity

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