Helping science succeed
Helping science succeed

Interdisciplinary science

Science has always been integrated. The knowledge gained from one field of study has always been applied in other fields. Scratch the surface of science discovery and it’s easy to identify centuries of interdisciplinary work filling volumes in the history of science and Western civilization, from the harnessing of electricity to the discovery of DNA to the application of computer technology throughout science and society. Indeed, entire fields like bioengineering, informatics, evolutionary genetics, and exobiology didn’t even exist a generation ago and are our most direct testament to the ongoing interaction between scientists in different fields.

What are some of the science integration success stories that have made it into the news recently? How about ornithology meets neurology? University of Washington biologist Mike Beecher has been studying the song patterns of sparrows for over 20 years. Evidently, the brains of male birds undergo a massive transformation every spring mating season. An influx of testosterone causes the parts of their brain that control song to double or even triple in size, and their brain cells also undergo electrochemical changes that make them more responsive and adaptable. As a result of these changes, the birds’ vocal skills improve. In the winter, the sparrow’s songs are rough, but by mating season their songs are polished. By studying these seasonal changes in bird brains at the micro level, Beecher and others hope to improve our understanding of how humans learn, and how damaged human brains can be repaired. To read more about Beecher’s work, click here.

How about materials science v. electronics v. medical science? At a March 2011 TED presentation, Dr. Anthony Atala of Wake Forest University “printed” a kidney made of biocompatible materials and cells using a 3-D printer that had been fed with information from a layer-by-layer 360-degree scan of a real kidney. This organ looked like a kidney but it didn’t function like one — it didn’t have any blood vessels inside. However, Dr. Atala and others feel that given the rate of advance in this field, there is real hope that the first fully functional human organs may be printed and available for transplant in the near future.

Another recent story combines robotics, computer science, neuroscience and prosthetics. A recent issue of Nature describes how two individuals paralyzed from the neck down have learned to manipulate a robotic arm using just their thoughts, amplified by tiny brain implants that transmit their brain signals to a computer. This work raises the hope that people with severe brain injuries will someday be able to control prosthetic devices, or even their own limbs, bypassing prostheses altogether. Click here to read more about this story.

Or how about a recent experiment establishing how radio waves (think cell phone signals) can be used to remotely control cells in mice — an experiment waiting for an application in stem cell therapy, medication control, and more.

Or how about electricity-generating viruses?

There’s much more, of course. And even more is in store just around the corner.

Aside from harboring the potential to create really jaw-dropping technological advances like these, why is interdisciplinary science important in and of itself? And is this interdisciplinary work more important than collaboration within disciplines? Both are important. However, interdisciplinary collaboration and communication has the potential to be more “disruptive.” History has demonstrated this fact time and again. Game theory even explains why. Consider jobseekers. They are usually counseled to contact people in their network, and sometimes this works, but what if it doesn’t? What then? Since a job-hunting network is sharing the same information, it is unlikely to offer any game-changing information, all else being equal — i.e., unless this network grows. Establishing connections to those outside a network is more likely to produce information that can alter the status quo.

So science stands to benefit from more interdisciplinary collaboration. Why isn’t there more? Part of the reason is that science also faces an information management problem compounded by the number of disciplines that don’t collaborate with one another, plus the way these disciplines communicate internally. Despite the many mechanisms that exist for sharing within fields of study — science groups and associations, conferences, books, journals and the Internet, for instance — there aren’t many mechanisms that actively integrate findings, standardize data, promote collaboration, and so on, even within fields of study. And definitely not between fields. There is no active mechanism that tells an industry-based bioengineer in Florida that an academic-based physicist in Oregon is working on an application that might be of profound interest, and in the massive jumble of information out there, the chances that these two researchers will connect is less than ideal. The separation between disciplines, reinforced by communication practices, a lack of institutional capacity, secrecy, journal publishing practices, and other forces, currently makes close and widespread collaboration between scientists somewhere between impractical and impossible. Add to this the fact that in today’s world is there’s so much knowledge available and being generated every second, and widespread collaboration becomes even harder to imagine. It’s not all Theory of Relativity caliber material, of course, but it’s out there — tens of thousands of journals, plus massive numbers of studies, conferences, papers, blog posts, and more. And this is just the organized data. In terms of just raw data, former Google CEO Larry Schmidt estimates that as a society we are now generating as much information every two days as we did between the dawn of civilization and 2003.

nSCI is working on addressing both of these issues: improving the visibility of new and potentially useful science information in our age of massive information flow, as well as improving information and knowledge systems that will promote and encourage better sharing and collaboration in science.

Science is on the cusp of changing our society in ways we could only imagine 100 years ago. And with a little help to encourage more and better interdisciplinary collaboration, science and society might be able to reap these benefits sooner rather than later. We’re heading for some fascinating years — stay tuned.