Getting radically interdisciplinary with the sciences

Getting radically interdisciplinary with the sciences

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Natalie Brender, National Director, Genomics in Society, Genome Canada


More visibly than ever, advocates for the humanities and social sciences (HSS) are making the case that their fields must be considered not just on par with, but actually as partners with, the natural sciences in contributing to societal goods. The new federal environment is propitious, with the government’s announced reviews of science policy and innovation policy, as well as a commitment to evidence-based policymaking. These developments offer a new receptiveness to the notion that the natural sciences are most productive when combined with HSS insights.

There are also signs that the natural sciences are becoming more aware of the benefits of getting radically interdisciplinary—meaning not just chemists talking to biologists, for instance, but to philosophers, sociologists and political scientists as well. Several Canadian science research agencies have realized the benefits of funding HSS research into the societal context of technological innovation. A new Canadian open access multidisciplinary science journal, whose arrival recently gained high-profile notice in the national media, seeks submissions from ‘integrative science’ perspectives addressing sustainability, ethics, public policy, science communication and other cross-over HSS fields.

Although recognizing the benefits of radically interdisciplinary research is a big step forward, putting this recognition into practice with interdisciplinary research teams is a much bigger challenge. In Europe, the EU’s Horizon 2020 research program has, since 2014, brought humanities and social sciences disciplines into funded projects in the areas of Societal Challenges and Industrial Leadership. Yet as the chair of the Irish Research Council has noted, EU rhetoric considerably outstrips reality when it comes to actual interdisciplinary integration within research projects. Likewise, contributors to a September 2015 special issue of Nature magazine focussing on interdisciplinarity note the difficulty of aligning disciplinary cultures, funding cycles and institutional incentives to make such collaborations work well.

Genome Canada has been experimenting for more than a decade with different models of program design for encouraging productive interdisciplinary research. Our scope of potential collaborations for HSS researchers is enormous, given that we fund genomic science across the sectors of health, agriculture, fisheries and aquaculture, forestry, mining, energy and the environment. Finding ways of designing collaborations that lead to more productive and socially responsible innovation is a major aim of our Genomics in Society program.

We don’t by any means have all the answers, but we do have a track record in fostering radical interdisciplinarity and a desire to compare our experiences with researchers, universities and other stakeholders to promote better research collaborations. That’s why we’re sponsoring a panel discussion at Congress 2016 on Getting Radically Interdisciplinary with the Sciences, which we hope many readers of this blog will attend. I hope you’ll come share insights with us on Tuesday, May 31,from 2:30 to 4:00 pm in the Main Expo Event Space.