The barriers to interdisciplinary science must be lowered

We need a sector-wide commitment to reforming career structures, funding strategies and publication outlets, says Ryan Truby

August 16, 2022
Person’s finger touching a robots finger to illustrate the barriers to interdisciplinary science must  be lowered
Source: Getty

As a kid, I was fascinated with the human body and how it worked. I was interested in other creatures, too. I would run around my grandparents’ ranch playing with grasshoppers, poking ants and watching spiders, wondering whether we could build machines with similar capabilities.

In high school, my curiosities became passions. I remember coming across a copy of my dad’s BusinessWeek magazine that highlighted the use of nanomaterials for targeted cancer therapy and detection. I imagined the nanoparticles I read about as tiny machines. The idea of combining materials, biology and engineering was so exciting that I still see that moment as the formal start of my interdisciplinary scientific journey.

Today, I work to advance machine intelligence through material design. I lead the Robotic Matter Lab at Northwestern University, a team that develops materials for new types of robots that may one day revolutionise how we tackle problems too difficult, unpleasant or dangerous for humans. For my work, I must draw on insights from engineering, manufacturing, chemistry, computing, and, of course, biology. I am not concerned about what type of scientist I am because I can’t be concerned about that. My interests and the challenges I want to solve simply know no discipline.

All our most pressing problems are interdisciplinary ones. From food insecurity and climate destruction to declining ocean health and the global invasion of microplastics, the great challenges we face will not be solved by scientists hailing from one disciplinary camp. The pandemic is a case in point. Our ability to navigate it was shaped not only by virologists, epidemiologists and public health experts, but also by the mechanical and aerospace engineers who understood the transport of airborne droplets carrying Covid particles, and the biomedical engineers and materials scientists who understood how masks protect us from inhaling those droplets.

More than ever, scientists must draw on whatever tools, expertise and knowledge is needed to play a part in answering the questions at hand. But we have made this incredibly difficult. For decades, the scientific community has created incentive structures and evaluation systems that are having the unintended consequence of hindering those who seek to train in new disciplines, or work across several.

I have seen this first hand and have experienced it vicariously through many peers. Often, hiring and tenure committees are comprised only of representatives from single departments. Clear metrics for success in interdisciplinary research are so difficult to define that we too often have no clear choice but to use a given discipline’s perspective. And what often feels too risky for mid-career scientists is normally outright frowned upon for early career ones. As I prepared for my own first faculty interviews, I was frequently advised to tone down or hide my interdisciplinary ambitions.

This mindset emerges in part from scientific funding mechanisms, which also embrace the convenience of assessing the merit and potential impact of proposals via panels from single fields. We do increasingly see funding calls for more interdisciplinary and convergent research, but usually for collaborative efforts – not single-investigator programmes.

I have been lucky though. Straight after my PhD, I was selected as an inaugural Schmidt Science Fellow. At each step of my career, I have pursued my interests, even when others saw them as disparate, to work on challenges that inspired me. I was still sceptical of my ability to step into another area, to understand new concepts or skills that an interdisciplinary path requires. Being told how unfocused I was never helped, either. But the Schmidt Science Fellows programme provided not only funding but also training, mentoring and, above all, a supportive community of Fellows. These resources gave me the freedom, time and, crucially, confidence to keep developing new skills and knowledge.

My Fellowship was foundational in my launching the Robotic Matter Lab and identifying Northwestern as its ideal home. Northwestern recruits for and champions interdisciplinary career paths. As a tenure-track assistant professor, I have a dream research ecosystem thanks to appointments in two departments and several research centres that enable and support my work at the interface of materials and robotics. And I have been able to secure funding from agencies, such as the US Department of Defense, that are more focused on challenges than disciplinary boundaries.

All scientists need support like I have received, especially those aspiring to work across disciplines. I believe the most important asset in addressing the structural barriers to interdisciplinarity is a community of peers who share a common desire to make a positive difference through science guided by diverse expertise and perspectives.

More broadly, we need a sector-wide commitment to reforming the scientific enterprise. This includes career structures, funding strategies and outlets for publication and dissemination. Younger interdisciplinary scientists need support through graduate fellowships that enable early risk-taking, reformed training programmes to support moves between disciplinary comfort zones, and early career funding mechanisms that support single-investigator interdisciplinary projects.

But interdisciplinary science’s potential to tackle the world’s greatest and most urgent challenges is too important to wait for. We all have a critical role in ensuring that it thrives now. Future generations – of all creatures on our planet – deserve nothing less.

Ryan Truby is assistant professor of materials science and engineering and mechanical engineering at Northwestern University and a Senior Schmidt Science Fellow. Schmidt Science Fellows, which has recently announced its fifth cohort, develops the next generation of science leaders to transcend disciplines, advance discovery and solve the world’s most pressing problems.

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