This week while I was attending a bioinformatics symposium, I began to ask myself why I was there. I am computational chemist, not a biologist, not a computer scientist, a chemist. So how is it that I am attending an entire day of lectures in something that I have never even taken an introductory course in? The answer is: this is the direction science is heading. The trending topic of ‘interdisciplinary studies’ is taking over academia and I think we are headed in the right direction for real results.
My day was spent listening to lectures ranging from chemical reactions to clinical trials. The diversity was obvious, yet all the talks were related to the reason we were there. The keynote speaker, Dr. Pandey of Johns Hopkins University, really summarized it best: science is complicated, so why are we trying to simplify it? One general goal of academics, all be it for the wrong reasons, is to get that next publication out. However, this tends to lead to oversimplification of extremely difficult problems. Despite these consequences, it is the way scientists form competition and collaboration.
Is this a result of the system in place? Is it a fault that universities are organized by departments instead of goals? Is the academic structure of writing papers, writing grants, doing research, rinse and repeat hurting productivity?
My current university works closely with Moffitt Cancer Center so I have had the opportunity to see many of their talks and examine their research structure. They all have a common goal: treating cancer. They have a team in place where each investigator has a specialty ranging from chemical physicists to clinicians. Therefore, when they discuss problems each person overlaps just enough that the details do not get lost in the ether. One problem with academic science is that people are focused on what they know without bridging the gaps, but science does not have gaps. The scale is continuous.
Would universities benefit from changing their system to centers specializing in drug discovery, renewable energy resources, etc.? Could these teams be more productive if the infrastructure changed? Is it even possible to change the system? Are these centers trending? Are they actually producing the desired product?
There seems to be a trend in creating interdisciplinary centers. I know I work on a floor aimed to do materials science that contains engineers, physicists, and chemists (theoretical and experimental). Another floor of my building is forming a drug discovery center with a diverse group of specialties. On yet another floor of my building there are a series of labs working on malaria research. I definitely know of some collaborations occurring in the building in all of these fields. But how much collaboration is really going on? For us it is too soon to tell.
I know these aren’t the only examples of this implementation. How prevalent are these new interdisciplinary centers? Is this situation unique? Is this why industry is so successful in designing their own products?
What do you think?