Boundaries, attitudes and where is the scientist going?

by Sir Peter Gluckman
Group of business people sitting in a line at a panel.

I spent some time in North East England over our summer as a member of the International Advisory Board of the Wolfson Research Institute for Health and Well-being. This Institute seeks to create a truly multidisciplinary organisation with its 150 fellows working on subjects ranging from basic biomedical science and physics through to many of the humanities. It is part of a matrix structure across Durham University, which is a relatively small but very well regarded, highly ranked and ambitious university.

Many of the discussions that emerged during the Board process were the very issues we need to think about here. They also show up in an interesting piece entitled ‘Groupthink’ (paid access) by Jonah Lehrer that recently appeared in The New Yorker (January 30th 2012).

Lehrer makes some appropriately derogatory comments about the use of brainstorming in an atmosphere that does not allow for embedded debate and criticism as a management tool. On the other hand he goes on to illustrate the enormous value of multidisciplinary activity and interaction contextualised by embedded criticism and debate as a key tool of innovation.

Later in the piece, he highlights the need for members of the various academic disciplines to actually meet and interact. This is why Steve Jobs insisted on only one set of restrooms in the middle of his company Pixar’s headquarters building; namely to encourage people to talk beyond disciplines. There is, indeed, lots of similar evidence that shows that innovative science and indeed many other forms of innovation come from such crossing of disciplinary boundaries. The New Yorker piece usefully adds a couple of war stories to the list.

All of this explains why so much basic science has its application beyond the areas in which the work started. I have argued for a long time that New Zealand should have an inherent advantage in interdisciplinary research because we are small and the academic community is easy to navigate. Exploiting such an advantage should be a key strategy in advancing our place in the world of innovation and knowledge.

But, as it happens, we have few tools to do so and a number of disincentives operating. Our funding streams tend to make such interdisciplinary research very difficult — an exception may be the Centres of Research Excellence. CRIs and universities are starting to talk more to each other but there are perverse incentives that still make crossing the institutional barriers complex. I hope the new ‘Smart Ideas’ funding scheme announced by MSI before Christmas will help.

But what is also clear is that there are a number of issues within academia that also need to be confronted. The most immediate of these is how to recognise the contributions made by individuals when by necessity large teams are formed. This is particularly difficult when separate disciplines rate different types of activity in different ways.

Indeed, this in turn leads me to reflect upon the other challenges that the academic tradition creates. Our tradition is understandably very individualistic, and yet in many parts of academia, knowledge is now a team sport. We see this most obviously in the tension between using individual performance as the basis of the PBRF in New Zealand and unit-based assessment which has come to be used in the UK. In New Zealand we see it in the problems of how to assess individual academic performance when every paper involves clusters of authors — in some areas, such as molecular epidemiology and particle physics, authorships of over 100 are not uncommon.

Actually the problem of academic performance assessment gets worse. For understandable and appropriate reasons, governments are wanting to incentivise high impact research (that is, research with strong commercial or public good benefits) and this means a number of changes are happening in the academic world.

Effort spent in these applied areas and success here does not necessarily mean that a researcher is less credible in the academic hierarchy, but our model is slow to work out how to deal with assessing such activity and to give comfort to the individuals concerned or to emerging academics who see possibilities at these interfaces. There is widespread agreement that more rotation of academic staff into business and/or government for (say) 1–2 year stints is a good idea, and that happens much more frequently in the northern hemisphere.

However it has consequences. How do we deal with that yawning ‘gap’ in the publication production line; indeed, this is something that women researchers with families have to contend with a great deal for other reasons. One of the complexities is that many CRI staff and not a small number of university staff are increasingly expected to engage with the private sector in their research, and while they may be very energetic and doing important work, it may not appear so in the public domain (or at least in a timely manner). What is a new family of patents worth relative to a scientific publication? In theory one should not pre-empt the other (once a patent has been filed, a paper becomes possible, but other demands and considerations often come into play).

And then there is the problem of the dominance of the impact factor — the highest impact journals in science tend to be relatively reductionist, and there can be a tension between members of multidisciplinary teams as to where to publish. Impact factors have their place — they do provide some indices of the sophistication of the research and researcher, but there are many reasons, including the issue of multidisciplinarity, that can lead to very good research being published elsewhere.

There is also the issue of CRI and indeed much environmental and social science research which (correctly) often focuses on nationally relevant rather than internationally significant problems. There is a danger, especially when funding is tight and decisions hard, that bibliometrics can get over-used.

There are many unresolved issues about getting the balance right between the individual researcher and the team, between cross-cutting science and detailed reductionist investigation, between traditional academic endeavor and the increasing pull to other forms of potentially high impact research, yet often primarily of local relevance.

These conflicting influences are going to be a real challenge for the academic community over the next decade. What is becoming clear is that changes in perspective in how to look at a scientific or academic CV and how to assess individual contribution will happen.

While not yet common in New Zealand compared to the northern hemisphere, we will see an increasing number of academics and scientists cross disciplinary boundaries or circulate between the public, private and policy sectors during the course of their careers. It is desirable that we find ways to make this happen; it will not be easy and some traditional perspectives will have to change at many levels. Assessing an individual’s contribution and potential will become harder but remains critical to the scientific enterprise.

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