Future gazer: resist research fads and focus on strengths instead

Australian report warns against fetish for interdisciplinarity, citing increasing specialisation of subfields

September 12, 2019
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So hot right now: universities are urged to drive, not follow, scientific trends

Universities have been urged to resist the lure of fast-buck research fads, including a temptation to abandon disciplinary silos, as the political and intellectual drivers of funding become increasingly volatile.

Research strategist Thomas Barlow says that universities must instead cultivate their research strengths as scientific subfields flit in and out of fashion.

In a report profiling the research landscape over the next two decades, commissioned by UNSW Sydney, Dr Barlow warns against “rolling with every latest bandwagon”. Administrators must learn to distinguish fleeting trends from enduring “intellectual waves”, he says.

Some waves will be brief and others long-lived, he says, pointing out that publications on human cloning skyrocketed in the 1990s only to almost vanish in subsequent years. Embryonic stem cell research experienced a similar peak early this decade, with CRISPR genetic editing technology the latest big thing.

The challenge for decision-makers is separating someone who has “merely leapt on a bandwagon” from the person driving it, the report says. “It can be as advantageous to create fashions as to follow them,” it insists.

While governments are “unwieldy and slow to change, they can dramatically shift their priorities over time”, the report adds. It cites the escalating proportion of targeted Australian government research dedicated to health, the environment and energy – and corresponding declines in the share of spending on industry, agriculture and defence – during the “peace and prosperity” of the past two decades.

But Dr Barlow forecasted more shifts as lobbyists demanded investment in other fields, or geopolitical changes triggered new calls for defence research spending. Accelerating technological development “will have an impact on the speed with which concepts come in and out of fashion”, he told Times Higher Education.

“Governments are very susceptible to groupthink. If something becomes very topical, they can move quickly behind it. Suddenly everybody thinks, ‘there’s all this funding in this area, I have to be involved’,” he said.

“That’s not going to work for everyone. When something is funded via what’s essentially a political process, there’s never a guarantee that the most meritocratic people end up being funded. Sometimes you’re better off sticking to what you know you’re good at and waiting for the wheel to point in your direction – or, perhaps optimally, to get out there and advocate for the things you believe in.”

Dr Barlow also cautioned against excessive interdisciplinarity. He said that approaches portrayed as multidisciplinary often involved different subfields of the same disciplines, as the research landscape became “increasingly balkanised”.

He said that there was evidence of limited increase in multidisciplinarity, particularly in areas where policy imperatives required scientists to work with social scientists, such as climate change. But suggestions of an interdisciplinary “revolution” were contradicted by a renewed trend of disciplines splitting into subfields.

“Within each discipline there’s fragmentation, sometimes to the point where people within a discipline struggle to communicate with one another,” he said.

The report predicts that North America will maintain its lead over East Asia in high-impact research, but Europe’s influence will decline. Global research literature will double by 2040 while fragmenting along national and linguistic lines, spawning new research quality metrics and underlining the need for universities to specialise.

Work functions will also specialise, with fewer than one in three Australian academics having roles that combine teaching and research by 2040, the report predicts. And the biggest research breakthroughs in every field, possibly including humanities, will be driven by research groups that harness automation and computation “to shift their research operations onto an industrial scale”.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (2)

Would love a link to the report... or the name of the report so I can find it...
I understand UNSW will be posting the report on its site in the next day or so, and will embed the link in our story when that happens.

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