The Dangers of Disciplinary Diversity

One of the curious facts about our scientific disciplines is that they do tend to have their own flavour and culture, with things that are taken as the norm in one discipline seeming very alien to another. There are a whole class of issues which fall under this heading, but stressing these differences too much could turn out to be politically damaging, as I’ll discuss later.

These cultural variations mean, for those of us working in interdisciplinary areas, it isn’t simply the language of another discipline that one has to learn, it is also their way of doing science. It is too easy to fail to realise that these differences exist because one is so steeped in one’s own methodologies that one doesn’t stop to think there might be another way of doing things.  I’ve previously written about the different styles of paper titles that seem the norm in physics and biology, but there are other significant differences in the way papers tend to get written up. As a microscopist, one of the things I find quite hard to get used to is the presentation of figures in biological papers, when a single ‘figure’ actually often consists of a montage of 9 or more, rendering each of them extremely small. With my decreasing visual acuity, I find this intensely irritating because I often can hardly see the feature of interest, particularly if – as seems so common – said feature is not arrowed or otherwise identified. Of course, the situation is much worse for me as a physicist, since I may not exactly understand what point is being made in all its biological glory.  In other words, I am a ‘lay biologist’ to adapt the phrase Martin Rees used recently:

We’re all  depressingly ‘lay’ outside our specialisms — my own knowledge, of recent biological advances, such as it is, comes largely from  ‘popular’ books and journalism.

So that is one, in some senses trivial challenge to the interdisciplinary worker. There are cultural differences in the way laboratories may be run too. The typical group size for a physics researcher tends to be much smaller than, say, in synthetic chemistry. The biology professor tends – as far as I can judge – to operate in a much more hierarchical way than a physics professor.

At the moment differences in the scientific community are apparent in other more significant ways. The EPSRC has been under attack on many fronts, in large part because of its ‘shaping capability’ plans. The synthetic chemists in particular have been on the offensive, complaining in a letter to the Prime Minister last summer about their speciality apparently being singled out as one where funding will be reduced, albeit from a very high level. Chemistry as a discipline has always tended to splinter into tribes: physical, synthetic, organic and theoretical chemists often sit in their own sub-departments without necessarily much communication (or love lost) between them. I have the distinct impression they are very protective of their sub-disciplines and their own way of doing things. I have heard it said in the past from within EPSRC that the chemists always tend to be the ones who complain and on this occasion with regard to the EPSRC, they have done so loudly and publicly. I am not here to comment on the wisdom or validity of their position, I merely point out that chemists seem more prone to object to funding decisions than, say, physicists or engineers.  One could argue, within the UK’s funding regime, that physicists being split between STFC and EPSRC are not in the same position as the chemists, and there is no doubt physicists have complained long and hard about STFC policies in the not so distant past, though they have been less obviously vocal in their dissatisfaction with the current EPSRC actions.

There are times, however, when fragmentation, doing things one’s own way, is probably profoundly unhelpful. Jocelyn Bell Burnell put this clearly in her 2010 Presidential address   at the IOP Awards’ Dinner, days before the Comprehensive Spending Review was announced, following a particular case of one part of the scientific community attacking another:

 Thirdly – and perhaps the most important of all – stick together.  There will be pressure to belittle other people’s work to fund your own.  Resist it.  We will make a much stronger public case for science and engineering by speaking with one voice and highlighting the overall benefits.

In the run up to the CSR we also saw the strong and unified voice of the Science is Vital  campaign, led by OT fellow blogger Jenny Rohn  stressing the overall importance of science for the economic good of the country, without needing to resort to splitting the community into camps. Collectively we are indubitably stronger than if we allow cracks to open up between our disciplines allowing the Government or the funders to operate a ‘divide and rule’ policy.

Currently, 15 months on from the CSR, there are signs that David Willetts  is trying to work out if an ‘industrial policy’ is needed and if so in what form, as shown by his recent speech. Both Richard Jones (here)  and William Cullerne Bown (here)  have done excellent jobs of analysing the content and subtexts in the speech, so I won’t attempt to offer any analysis of my own here, but there are some interesting underlying issues about how scientists present themselves when dealing with politicians that we shouldn’t ignore. If we are to look ahead, peer into our crystal balls, we need not simply be slaves to the idea that blue-skies research is all we need and wonderful discoveries will fall out coincidentally; nor should we assume that ‘knowing’ where we are trying to get to will solve the problem either, if we narrow our choices and put all our eggs in a single basket. But we have no choice but to work with – rather than against – the politicians if we are to make any sensible progress in forwarding the science agenda. We need to build on the position we are being offered by Willetts, namely that science-can-drive-innovation-can-drive-growth. But if we stay in our tribal dominions and fight over the boundaries between them, we are weakening our position and our opportunities. I have heard Willetts use the Haldane Principle in debate  as a way of apparently ducking decision-making (in this case about numbers of and careers for postdoctoral researchers), by saying such matters must be left to the scientists themselves without government interference. If we fragment as a scientific community, he can continue to use the Haldane principle to our detriment by refusing to listen to our arguments, claiming that if he listens to one section he might be disadvantaging another. We must be very wary of allowing this to happen.





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