Let’s hear it for interdisciplinary science. Everyone says what a good idea it is. The research councils strategic plans tend to laud it. And yet, and yet….Do they mean it?
Last week I attended an excellent conference in Oxford. Entitled Physics Meets Biology, it was organised by the Biological Physics Group (BPG) of the Institute of Physics. As its name suggests, and as the group organising its name also suggests, this is inherently interdisciplinary science. It’s exciting stuff (you can see why I think so on my first blog at the Guardian), the field is moving and expanding and more and more groups are establishing themselves in the UK in this area. The BPG was set up in 2007 – I was its first chair, but passed the baton on a couple of years ago to Andrew Turberfield – and this was the third in a series of conferences with the same name, run at 2 yearly intervals. During the 5 years of its existence the group has built up a thriving community, or perhaps more accurately acted as a focus to bring together disparate groups which were already extant. There’s lots of neat stuff going on in the UK and what really struck me at this year’s meeting was the number of different centres which were presenting talks and posters; there were also a good number of early career researchers. When there are a few key centres dominating an area it seems to me that there is the danger of heading for fossilisation. When the research base is broad and the average age relatively young, it means that new blood, new ideas are constantly entering the field. Many of the invited speakers were international, but the bulk of the attendees were UK based. The organising committee had ensured a good gender balance of excellent speakers, and there was no sign of women holding themselves back in the questions sessions either.
One of the invited speakers was Doug Kell, Chief Executive of the BBSRC (he has written briefly, but enthusiastically, about the meeting on his own blog). He gave an interesting talk largely derived from his early work, well before he assumed the mantle of running the Research Council, particularly looking at bioinformatics approaches rather than physics per se. (For any international readers, it is probably worth spelling out that the BBSRC stands for the Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council, because one of the US invited speakers asked me afterwards what the acronym meant; it is too easy to take these things as read.) The few slides he did show from the BBSRC perspective disappointed me, though. He quoted some large number of millions of pounds that he alleges the BBSRC are spending on ‘biophysics’, and then elucidated that most of that was spent in Biochemistry Departments. Without wanting to denigrate what may be being funded under this programme, it is disappointing to realise just how little appreciation there is of the difference between the kind of research being discussed at this meeting and that traditionally done in Biochemistry departments. Biological physics, as the BPG mean it, is not the same as traditional biophysics of the nerve impulse/ion channel/measuring signalling pathways variety done in Biochemistry and allied departments, even if it is now coupled with cutting edge fluorescent microscopy. The latter gets funded quite substantially by the BBSRC as Doug pointed out; rather little of the former kind of biological physics does.
One difference, that may seem subtle but is actually quite fundamental, is that much of the biological physics that was presented at this meeting would probably appear in a grant proposal as ‘we want to see what happens when we do X’, or ‘we have a new tool that should cast light on Y’. It might be worded a little more precisely, but it often is not of the ‘my hypothesis is that…’ variety, and hypotheses are rather explicitly required (eg on referee forms) by the BBSRC. I have been annoyed by this ever since I sat on some previous manifestation of a BBSRC committee more than 10 years ago. Then, if the hypothesis was stated as ‘if gene A is down-regulated I predict there will be an effect’ it seemed to be regarded as adequate, even if what that effect was likely to be was never explained. If it was,’ I can now image at unprecedented resolution and with chemical specificity and I will examine what happens when I add molecule J to cell K’, the lack of a hypothesis meant no grant was likely to be awarded. Yet, in many cases I would hazard a guess that the second proposal was an awful lot more exciting than the first, which too often can look like nothing more than sausage machinery. It is deeply disappointing that a tribal hang-up about hypotheses still lingers round the BBSRC, even though the nature of so much of science has changed. Physics, indeed the EPSRC, do not have this same fixation.
I pushed Doug over dinner about the fact that the figures he quoted did not relate to ‘biological physics’ as this particular community meant it, and our work tended to sit uncomfortably at the join between BBSRC and EPSRC (the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council) . I wasn’t expecting to make much headway because it’s an(other) argument I‘ve had before with senior BBSRC staff. The answer I got was similar to the one I got when still Chair of their Committee C a couple of years back: ‘Why should our particular interdisciplinary field be regarded as in need of attention more than any other, or deserving of special treatment?’ I find this answer deeply disturbing. It is implicitly saying that they know that there is a problem, but because there are many junctions where there may be problems, they regard it as too difficult to do anything and so they’ll look the other way and stick with the easy mainstream topics. Other concrete examples where interdisciplinarity causes problems, to my certain knowledge, can be found in the way research around good health, as opposed to disease, is handled; this is neither within BBSRC or MRC remits and yet ought to be something that is viewed as crucially important. A second example is what happens for topics that sit between BBSRC and NERC (National Environmental Research Council). In other words, whatever the problems may be within a single research council and its constituent grant-giving committees, it is infinitely worse when an area sits at the interface with another Council. Yet, reading their strategy documents over many years, lip service is paid to the importance of interdisciplinarity. In practice there are far too many cracks down which excellent science can disappear.
Of course, the BBSRC is not alone in failing to match action to its words on this front. When Dave Delpy took over as Chief Executive at EPSRC I heard him say that he appreciated there was a problem with the refereeing of interdisciplinary proposals, and that maybe a specific group of people who were capable of taking an overarching view of things – as opposed to some narrow proprietary interest – should be identified to be charged with refereeing such applications. It sounded plausible, but there has been no movement on this front that I am aware of. All I hear is that, since it is the community that is doing the refereeing, the problem must lie with the community. I am not convinced. It is EPSRC staff who choose the referees (even if applicants nominate some, they aren’t necessarily used and others will be added into the mix by the staff).If EPSRC personnel play ‘safe’ and ask for people from the core disciplines (or even if they do this because they aren’t familiar enough with the science to know any better), and if they don’t keep track of the fate of those applications that don’t fit squarely in obvious categories to see if they are being systematically disadvantaged by the referees chosen, no progress will ever be made.
It is interesting that the EPSRC has recently identified the Physics of Life as one of its so-called Grand Challenges. At the moment this exists as nothing more than a network, funded initially at a level that will simply facilitate meetings to bring the community together to allow them flesh out what key questions should be tackled, coupled with a bit of inter-lab travel for feasibility experiments and discussions. I trust that this means that, as the network does identify key questions and routes to their solution, appropriate funding, possibly ringfenced, to allow the research to be carried out will be put on the table. If not, this effort is doomed to failure. Maybe my pessimism over what has happened in the past in this field now belongs to the past; it would be nice to think so. I will certainly be interested to see what transpires. But if, as has happened too often previously to me and many of my colleagues, disputes arise as to whether proposed research fully fits into the EPSRC remit or has too much biology in it to find a home there or, because it mentions words like cancer or other diseases, it is really MRC work, then real innovative science to solve the Grand Challenge will be blocked. That is where ‘falling down the cracks’ is so particularly frustrating.
These arguments, in case there is any doubt, have nothing to do with the long-running sore about Impact. In fact I think the field of biological physics is rich in examples of how there may be long-term impact from the research being carried out, but that is neither here nor there for the points I am trying to make. A large part of my frustration with both research councils is that they seem to think an argument that says all proposals will be found a home in one or another is a sufficient response to the problem of the discontinuity between them – it isn’t. Finding a home means that applicants end up having to distort their science (and therefore not necessarily apply to do the best science they could; I am of course referring simply to responsive mode proposals here) to fit one remit or the other. Otherwise they are told it is ‘too biological’ for EPSRC, but ‘not biological enough’ for BBSRC. But it is also the case that the refereeing and panel process are not suited to deal with interdisciplinary projects. The style of writing may differ from mainstream topics, but of itself that tells the reader nothing about the quality of science. It is merely interpreted as ‘failing’ because single subject science is seen as the correct default position. That is like saying women make ‘bad men’ because they’re different. In social sciences this is known as the deficit model, and is as bad an argument for science as for gender.
I am told not infrequently that the research councils are doing the best job they can; that they try hard to satisfy everyone. Those statements may be true, but that doesn’t make it a level playing field for people moving into new areas which aren’t properly represented on referee lists, or on panels actually giving grants out. I am afraid this is just a manifestation of ‘regression towards the mean’, where the mean defines mainstream science. It is a sure-fire route to stifle novel science and simply maintain the status quo.
Although this post is written largely around one specific scientific angle, I think the problems are endemic for any science at the interface between disciplines or research councils. It is a generic problem. We should have a seamless funding landscape and we do not. (The US is now doing much better on this front either than we are, or than they used to do, at least in the area of what I think they call the Physics of Living Systems.) Watching the way some chemists, synthetic chemists in particular, have reacted to any suggestion that funding in their (one might say traditional) field might be slightly cut, indicates just how much conservatism is endemic. They have acted as a lobby group, though not necessarily very successfully. Maybe it is time those of us who do not fit squarely into any box to stand up and be (even more) vociferous too. Not to use special pleading for our field to be particularly protected, but to call for practices to be as fair to us who work at the margins of any given discipline and who cross boundaries, as for those who sit squarely in the middle of some well-established subject. As things stand that is not the case, it hasn’t been the case in the recent past, and the research councils show no obvious sign that things are likely to change radically to back up those warm statements about the importance of interdisciplinarity.
On a completely different topic, readers who enjoy my thoughts on gender issues may be interested in my recent guest blog over at the BMJ website: ‘Science it’s a Girl Thing’ is not a cure.