K M Venkat Narayan: Ten barriers to trans-disciplinary science

On August 2 I attended a stimulating and idealistic meeting on Trans-disciplinary Science for Non-communicable Diseases (NCD) and Global Health that was jointly organized by the Young Professionals Chronic Disease Network (YP-CDN). and the US Institute of Medicine (IOM).   

A large part of the motivation behind the meeting was a paper published in Global Heart in the lead-up the UN High Level Summit on NCD in September last year. The YP-CDN/IOM meeting was hosted by Emory University in Atlanta, and participants from several Universities, NGOs, and IOM attended.  

Meetings such as the one organised by YP-CDN/IOM often provoke ideas that can leave one wondering and reflecting in the sub-conscious.  This process has churned in my head for the past few days, and I think there are ten barriers to “trans-disciplinary” science:

1.  Discipline:  When I think of “trans-disciplinary,” I inevitably come to the feeling that the real barrier is in the “disciplines.” Every discipline has its own sets of rules, its own nomenclatures, some absolute positions, some established boundaries & institutions – all of which impose protectionist barriers to collaboration across disciplines.  It makes me wonder whether a “revolution” to change that may need to reframe “trans-disciplinary science” as “trans-indisciplinary science?!”  (I am being tongue-in-cheek, but you get the point)

2. Definition:  It can be a struggle to define what exactly is meant by “trans-disciplinary” or for that matter how it is different from “inter-disciplinary” or “multi-disciplinary”   Is “trans-disciplinary” simply another politically correct fad or jargon?  Is it a subject? Is it a methodology?  Is it simply a new way of thinking? We need to define or describe trans-disciplinary better.

3. Identity:  Humans have a strong need for identity for their feeling of security and this is true even when it comes to professions. Often people want to identify themselves with a singular discipline – sociologist, physicist, chemist, geneticist etc.  Even those who work in more than one discipline often struggle to identify dominantly with a single one.  Transition to a plural identity that can embrace several disciplines may be needed for trans-disciplinary science.

4. Totalitarian ideologies:   Many conceptualize trans-disciplinary as the alternative to discipline silos, and often people wanting to promote trans-disciplinary science tend to view “silo-science” as undesirable, and similarly specialists in a discipline or in a subject area tend to view trans-disciplinary scientists condescendingly as dabblers.  Yet there ought to be space for each: we need the silos for specialised work, and we need the trans-disciplinary approach for cross-cutting themes. It is all a matter of context, and unless we can appreciate context and apply the approach accordingly, we can create totalitarian ideologies.

5.  Funders:  Most funding agencies or foundations tend to identify with subjects or disciplines (for example, National Institutes of Diabetes & Digestive & Kidney Diseases; National Eye Institute; American Heart Association; American Chemical Society).  Few funders exist who would support trans-disciplinary work that may cut across subjects or disciplines. 

6. Mentors:  Traditional mentors tend to associate with specific disciplines or subject areas, and often encourage mentees to follow the safe path of sticking to single disciplines or to “keep focus”.  Mentors may also find it challenging to cut across disciplines or to make necessary compromises to the rigours of their discipline to accommodate trans-disciplinary work. While structured approaches to mentoring has its place, trans-disciplinary science needs permeable borders across disciplines, and this needs mentors who can appreciate other disciplines than their own, and can encourage their mentees to discover the excitement that may reside in the connections between disciplines.

7. Reviewers:   Review committees for grants are often filled with people committed to the narrow rigours of their own areas of specialisation, and the scoring process can be restrictive to accommodate trans-disciplinary work.  For example, while specific hypotheses or detailed preliminary work may be appropriate for single discipline explorations, trans-disciplinary work may often need agnostic approaches and innovative unconventional methods and adventurous post-hoc examination of data to make discoveries. 

8. Careers:  Rewards and careers often tend to follow disciplines: professor of physics, professor of molecular medicine, epidemiologists, chemists, Nobel Prize in Mathematics, Nobel Prize in Medicine, etc.  Even academic tenure systems and career progress in industry tend to measure success in single disciplinary or specialist terms. These situations seldom accommodate trans-disciplinary science.  Changes to existing career structures and rewards or new opportunities and careers should be created to promote trans-disciplinary science.

9.  Institutional structures:   Structures in institutions generally follow disciplinary or subject area focus. For example, Department of Nutrition, Department of Anatomy, Department of Demography, etc.  These promote critical mass of professionals within single subject or discipline areas, but are not easily amenable to trans-disciplinary work.  Promotion of trans-disciplinary science may need new ways of structuring institutions, new types of incentives, and new models of communication and leadership.

10.  Lack of sex appeal:   Single disciplines and subject areas have “branding” power and marketing power.  This tends to draw young minds into them.  Trans-disciplinary science may not yet have that power and appeal.  Think of ways to enhance the “sex appeal” of trans-disciplinary science is something that will be needed.

Clearly, many of the health challenges of the 21st century will need collaboration that can cut across disciplines and subjects as diverse as biology & sociology, physics & medicine, nutrition & economics, climate change & chronic diseases, politics & agriculture, technology & philosophy, public health & marketing .  This will require a new way of thinking, a new way of conceptualizing, a new culture and a new way of connecting science to context.  The opportunities for trans-disciplinary science are exciting, but some daunting challenges remain before these opportunities can be realised.

K.M. Venkat Narayan is Ruth and O.C. Hubert Professor of Global Health and Professor of Epidemiology and Medicine at Emory University Atlanta. He is a product of three continents, having lived and worked in India, the United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, and United States of America.