It was an American colleague who first said to me “the big problems facing the world today are so complicated that they can never be addressed by researchers in single academic disciplines, we need inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary teams”.

Since then I’ve seen the philosophy go viral in universities. I can certainly see why. I like the idea of cross-fertilisation and synergy – yes, of course, biologists should work with statisticians. I also like the idea of promoting collaboration rather than competition, and forming welcoming and inclusive communities with a purpose. And I can see the advantages of uniting different schools of thought behind a single cause.

But the more I think about it, the more I believe the statement is confusing when applied to university research for two interesting reasons. I even wonder if it is holding us back in terms of expanding our connections to society.

Firstly, the statement misunderstands what research is and how academics work.

It confuses question-asking with solution-implementation.

Cutting edge research is about asking the right questions and exploring at the very frontiers of discipline-specific knowledge. It is about looking for a new path when you’ve reached the end of the road. Research thus requires deep discipline-specific expertise much more than it requires cross-fertilisation.

Researchers don’t go to the library or the lab and ask questions like: can we alleviate poverty, or can we cure cancer? Nor do they ask: can we put someone on the moon? These aren’t really questions that researchers can answer. Researchers, like others across society, may be motivated by these goals, and care about them, but academics have to ask much more focussed, and sometimes seemingly arcane or boring, questions.

Researchers ask highly technical questions related to their expertise (to their disciplines) and they choose questions that they expect will have answers that will help the world advance towards the goal.

If the goal is to go to the moon the questions might be: what fuel delivers the most energy per gram, what is the lightest and strongest metal, what material is sufficiently heat resistant to withstand the temperatures expected on re-entry? What is that temperature? Or they might be economic questions, like how do we sustain secure funding over ten years. What will be the benefits? Or legal questions – who is responsible for space junk? Or medical questions about how much oxygen astronauts will need or what G forces they can endure. But the questions will be discipline-specific questions that require a high level of expertise to answer.

This is why researchers typically carry out a four-year bachelor degree, then a three or four-year doctorate, and then perhaps four years of post-doctoral training before leading their own research programs – they need to develop deep and specific knowledge. Answering questions like these cannot be done by multi-disciplinary think tanks, and only sometimes benefit from novel insights from other disciplines, cross-fertilisation or the injection of new perspectives from distinct areas of research.

Researchers may ask questions about cancer or about bush fires, and should advise on both, but you don’t necessarily want our academics out in the front line against the fires or in the intensive care clinics treating the patients – there are other professionals across society who are better at implementation.

All this becomes obvious when you think about COVID-19.

It is a classic complex problem. We don’t know if the solution will be a vaccine, a therapy such as a specific monoclonal antibody or viral inhibitor, or vastly improved diagnostic tests that allow instant detection and isolation by catching cases before they can spread, or a combination of all these and other public health strategies that may be challenging to implement and maintain.

But what we do know is that we will need disciplinary specific expert researchers to ask deep questions then pass this knowledge to other professionals right across society to implement the solutions. We will need vaccine experts, monoclonal antibody experts, drug designers, or analytical test developers to work hard in their disciplines and then to reach out and pass on the knowledge to practitioners.

And yes, we will need researchers from diverse disciplines to reach out simultaneously to professionals. The vaccine experts will make the first vaccine but biotech companies will produce it. Health professionals will test it. Economists will advise on how to scale it up and distribute it across the rich and poorer countries. Psychologists and social scientists will advise on how to get people to wear masks or comply with stay at home orders. Philosophers and ethicists will contribute their deep knowledge, and political scientists will help us consider the new world order.

Every discipline is vitally important and should be respected and celebrated but I don’t want them all helping in my lab just at the moment.

Which leads to me the second point. The statement misunderstands the fact that it is not the academic researchers who will implement the solutions, rather the academics should connect with other professionals across society to improve the world. Researchers ask the questions, but others from across the world are those that actually deliver the solutions.

Most importantly, the statement confuses the role of a university, which is to create and pass on knowledge – to the next generation of students and more broadly to inform the whole of society. Society uses that knowledge to implement improvements – academics don’t lead society, they provide knowledge.

The statement elevates academics from questioners and teachers – to problem solvers and fixers.

It makes us like the Thunderbirds  – “International Rescue”.

Universities are great but we are not the Thunderbirds. And we must not aspire to be so because if we do only one fate awaits us – failure.

Society will feel increasingly let down as universities fail to live up to an impossible promise. Worse than that, the statement implicitly suggests that universities have, and will deliver, all the solutions, and the rest of society won’t. This I think causes resentment against the ivory towers, populated by know-alls.

The statement also draws universities into politics, since some goals are overtly political. This detracts from the role of universities as being non-aligned places for open debate. Increasingly universities, because they wish to make progress, are seen as socially progressive and ideologically left-wing. This is a problem when half of society is more interested in conservative ideas, and preserving the gems of history, and when your role in society is to include all the different view-points.

My view is that the way different disciplines serve the world is by connecting more with society rather than always connecting with each other.

Obviously, early interdisciplinary or cross-disciplinary connections can be productive, refreshing and rewarding, I merely want to argue against the now conventional view that when it comes to big problems multi-disciplinary work is always the best first and essential step.

To me the main thing academics need to do better is to connect with society, not with fellow academics. That is the secret of ‘translation’ and implementation and that is what we should talk about.

One of the reasons I like things like The Conversation (so much that I joined the Board) is that providing expert opinion is one way academics can connect with and get their findings out to society to help build broad teams that can play roles in implementation. Similarly, the Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC) is designed to help transmit knowledge to journalists and those who need it, basically to everyone across society.

Of course, all this doesn’t mean we should never talk about grand challenges and explain that the questions we are asking are not pure whimsy but are designed to make progress in terms of improving the environment and the life of those who live within it. But that is quite different from suggesting that progress towards these goals will be improved by a three-legged race where individual academics are bound together in an attempt to ask wonderful questions that are the biggest and most pressing in the world.

Put another way, as one of my teachers once told me – if you want to make people happy, perhaps write a song, but please, don’t feel you have to sing it. We all have different talents and different jobs to do. Universities have to inform and connect with society not do everything ourselves.

It is vitally important that both students and staff dig deep and get to the cutting edge of their disciplines, so that fundamental research by bacteriologists can drag forth technologies like CRISPR and expert virologists can develop new clamp technologies for making vaccines.

Then later, once the researchers have created and disseminated new knowledge, society will benefit as all the professions harness the knowledge and translate it, implementing complex solutions.

It is the connections between universities and society that are enormously important.

In fact – the grand challenges facing our world today are so complex that they will only be solved if academics work with people across society to translate new knowledge and implement solutions!

Prof. Merlin Crossley

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic, UNSW


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