Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The nature of interdisciplinary work in Nature

Editorial in this week's Nature commenting on the divide between the sciences and humanities as portrayed by C.P. Snow in his "Two Cultures" lecture had this quote:
...those who bring disciplines together in the pursuit of scientific and technical answers find that the best people to have on board are those with deep specialized knowledge, and that such individuals can usually find a place in well-led collaborations.
This resonates with my own experience - in pursuit of "multidisciplinarity" we cannot forget the value of people with deep knowledge. Martin Kemp, in an essay later in the same issue, put the need this way:
What is needed is an education that inculcates a broad mutual understanding of the nature of the various fields of research, so that we might recognize where there special competence and limitations lie.
Such an education is not the same as having students take introductory courses in all disciplines, which is a common outcome when groups get together to train students across disciplines. I believe that a "broad mutual understanding" can only arise by working together with people from other disciplines on common problems - this needs a different course, one that is distinctly interdisciplinary. We still need people to do multiple things - biologists that take some math, and policy analysts that take some biology, but there are few people able to do math, ecology AND policy science. And yet to solve real world problems in river restoration we need to be able to bring Policy analysis, math, hydrogeology, biogeochemistry, and ecology to bear at a minimum.

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