Beyond the Silo Mentality

I have been fretting about the challenges of appropriately evaluating interdisciplinary work for many years. My specific beef has been about grant assessment in the Research Councils at the interface between physics and biology, because that is where my research expertise sits, and I have seen – and heard about – too many instances of what would appear to be a very non-level playing field. I wrote about this here and here; it is an issue I feel passionate about because it is clear that things can go badly awry. Judging interdisciplinary work is not easy because you cannot simply rely on experts on the individual component parts to come up with an overall judgement simply by summing (or averaging) their scores. Not-cutting-edge science in either/any of the contributing disciplines can nevertheless lead to startling new results by combining different approaches to create something novel. That isn’t the only way novelty can be achieved, but it is one that is often killed at birth by ‘experts’ saying the physics, the biology or whatever isn’t original.

Of course one can find interdisciplinary science at the interface between practically any pair of disciplines. Indeed I was once formally told by senior folk at one Research Council that this was the reason why they weren’t prepared to consider the physics-biology interface further, which didn’t convince me then – or now – as a good response. Disciplines are convenient fictions, but they really aren’t silos with large gaps in between where nothing sits (‘forbidden states’ as we would say in condensed matter physics). However, although they aren’t that, people often operate as if they are, in other words with a ‘silo mentality’. To use another physics analogy, too often research committees undergo ‘regression towards the mean’. Outliers in research area – and this needn’t even mean interdisciplinarity, just something that is either not flavour of the month or perceived as not being core to the subject – are seen as just that, outliers, and therefore not worthy of support. In contrast, something that sits squarely in an area that is in favour and has several people round the table who actually vaguely understand what is written is likely to get the nod because people feel comfortable with it. I may exaggerate, but not as much as you might wish to believe. I’ve seen it happen too often over many years in different sorts of committees.

Before I get to the actual point of this post (which is certainly not meant this time as an attack on funders), let me illustrate the ‘not flavour of the month’ aspect by personal experience. When I was a young researcher I took over a grant won by my mentor Sir Sam Edwards to work on Food Physics. Over time, once I’d got my head around what this might encompass since it certainly wasn’t an area in which I had any prior direct experience, it became a very satisfying experience. As I’ve written before I had particular satisfaction – and I would like to think, success – studying starch. But my colleagues weren’t all amused, and for my students attending conferences often turned into rather dispiriting affairs. Other physicists, even other polymer physicists, just didn’t see that this was interesting stuff for a physicist to look at, but it would never cut ice as pure biology. The group at the Cavendish persisted, also working closely with industry, and for a decade or more we had a thriving group internally which perhaps wasn’t always appreciated by the wider academic community. So, it amuses me (in a rather melancholic way) to see the Institute of Physics now pushing ‘Food Physics’ and ‘Food Manufacturing’ as if it is an exciting new area. The November issue of their magazine featured the former, a special report in October the latter. I wonder what their very own editor Matin Durrani makes of this transformation, since he was one of the students who at the time probably felt his work (on polysaccharide-protein gels, the type of mixtured that underlie low fat spreads) was not seen as sexy.

Anyhow, to return to the theme of interdisciplinarity. Why is this currently on my mind? It’s because, just this last week, HEFCE have announced the creation of an Interdisciplinary Advisory Panel for REF21; I have been appointed as chair. It is a big ask for all the same reasons research councils find it hard to crack the funding problem. The REF panels assessing our universities will work via discipline (I assume). Unlike in the US, joint appointments between departments are not particularly common. Research Councils urge us to work in a multidisciplinary way, but structures simply don’t make this easy. A recent report from Durham University (co-authored by another polymer physicist and former Cambridge colleague Tom McLeish) has considered the way interdisciplinary research should be evaluated, mainly in the context of funders (as opposed to the REF), and sets out some very clear proposals about what constitutes truly collaborative work. No doubt we collectively will be studying this and other similar documents to help inform our ultimate recommendations. I am under no illusions that meeting for a couple of hours and all will be solved. It just isn’t that kind of problem. I believe I have just (possibly foolishly) taken on a very large challenge.

No doubt in time as our work gets underway I won’t be able to write anything about our work, but since we haven’t started yet I feel bound by no confidentiality. After all, there is nothing to be confidential about so far, not even the membership of the panel, and the information that the panel exists was merely announced at a meeting on interdisciplinarity and through Twitter. I will make three confident predictions about our findings:

1 Some people will not like them. Whatever our recommendations are, someone will complain that they are personally disadvantaged (or that someone else is unfairly advantaged).

2 The amount of time I find I need to invest as Chair will be significantly more than the invitation letter implies. Informal contact with James Wilsdon who chaired the HEFCE Metrics panel tends to confirm this suspicion.

3 Institutions will find ways to play the system, whatever criteria may be adopted.

Despite this, I am quite sure that having a group of broad-minded individuals working across the full spectrum of disciplines is crucial in trying to move the debate forward. So, I’ll give it my best shot – along with my as yet unknown colleagues – to try ensure that finally those working in new ways, in new combinations and with new insight and innovative approaches will be assessed fairly and equitably with those who sit neatly within the traditional silos.


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3 Responses to Beyond the Silo Mentality

  1. Tom McLeish says:

    Very good news Athene. I wonder though if you’d be good enough to mention the other author of the Durham IAS report (of which we are inordinately proud) Prof Veronica Strang, an anthropologist and Director of the Durham IAS. In other words the work on IDR evaluation drew on an interdisciplinary team itself!

  2. Niall MacKay says:

    REF2014 guidelines (in maths, at least) implied that inter- or cross-disciplinary work would be with disciplines somehow adjacent/contiguous. Not much help if your work is joint maths/history. (Wtf? say other academics. Well, the papers get published in decent disciplinary journals on either side.)

  3. Tom
    Happy to give a shout-out to Veronica Strang. I’m sure the report was only viable because it itself involved an interdisciplinary team so that you really knew the ins and outs.

    I guess the challenge is exactly that, to move beyond the adjacent/contiguous as appropriate criteria. I for one expect that many science/social science examples might be involved as well as the more obvious maths/computing or physics/chemistry sort of research. But time will tell as our panel gets down to our work in due course.

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