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One Science: Life at the Interface – supporting interdisciplinary research

16 Dec, 2015


Wellcome Trust Frontiers meetings bring together a varied group of current and future global leaders to help us think differently about an area of science or research, or how either can contribute to a healthier society, and to brainstorm new approaches for how to catalyse change in this area. The first in our new series of Frontiers meetings, ‘One Science – Life at the Interface’, saw participants bring diverse perspectives to the question of how the Wellcome Trust could better support and facilitate interdisciplinary research across health, life, engineering and physical sciences. Holly Baines, who works in the Insight & Analysis team at the Wellcome Trust, reports on some of the main messages from the meeting…

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We brought together 50 researchers for One Science – Life at the Interface, and with a Nobel Prize winner rubbing shoulders with early-career researchers in the tea queue, people from academia and industry, and participants from across the globe, it was a truly mixed bunch.

From geography to biochemistry, and not forgetting engineering, researchers represented a wide range of disciplines and career stories – and each person brought something different to the mix.

As many of the key challenges for science, technology and society in the 21st century are complex they demand an interdisciplinary approach that can offer insights into new solutions by combining perspectives. However, funding, assessment, peer review, career structures and buildings are generally designed around narrower disciplinary boundaries.

These can create widely recognised barriers to interdisciplinary research, but we sought to delve much deeper into these issues, and debate the merits of different solutions. The primary aim of hosting such a meeting is that the discussions help advise the Wellcome Trust on what actions we, and others, could take in order to better support interdisciplinary research and overcome the challenges.

Frontiers meeting 'One Science: Life at

Frontiers meeting ‘One Science: Life at

What makes a successful interdisciplinary environment?

Many examples of great practice for interdisciplinary working were discussed at the meeting with models ranging from interdisciplinary principal investigators to team science, and also considering the institute model and flexible international collaborations.

Regardless of the approach, there was a strong consensus amongst delegates that success will only result if there is a strong vision for collaboration and a culture that fosters openness, curiosity, creative thinking, trust and respect across disciplines.

The key to success is finding the right people, with little to be gained from designing the “perfect” system/environment if it isn’t populated by productive, creative and collaborative people.

What can funders do?

It became quite clear during the meeting that many of the challenges faced in interdisciplinary research actually pervade all of modern science and research – they are often just more keenly felt by interdisciplinary researchers. A number of different solutions to these challenges were discussed and a lot of advice given, with some of the key messages including:

  • Funding structures should not be limited to discipline-based peer review and hypothesis-driven applications, as these can hinder technologists, tool-makers and physical scientists whose work is often based on exploration.
  • Funders should offer a balanced portfolio of different options to support the best people with the best vision. This should range from seed funding to international collaborative support to funding centres and institutes.
  • Greater flexibility and support is needed for different career paths and at different career stages.
  • Mentorship is a lifeline for early career researchers, and funders need to think about how mentorship schemes could be better facilitated.
  • Reward structures need to be changed to better recognise and credit the full range of research outputs and contributions to research.

At the end of the two days one message was clear: whilst improvements to existing mechanisms could be made, overcoming the challenges of interdisciplinary research actually needs to be considered as part of a much broader conversation around academic culture, for which partnership will be essential.

As a result of the meeting we are now prioritising areas where the Trust could make a difference and we will endeavour to share our plans moving forward as these become more developed.

If you’d like to find out more about the discussions and recommendations made, read the evidence synthesis of the meeting on the ‘One Science’ webpage.  To learn more about our Frontiers meetings and submit your own ideas for new topics, please visit the Frontiers webpage.

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