Synthesis Begins: From Little Things…

7 04 2011

Interdisciplinary research (IDR) is hard. But it can be improved. And there are a few ways to improve it that haven’t been tried in earnest yet.

That’s the upshot of the first meeting of the interdisciplinary research group, tentatively toying with the title Synthesis.

In attendance were myself, Tim Dean (philosophy PhD & science journalist); John Wilkins (philosopher of biology); Tibor Molnar (philosopher and engineer); Nigel Cadogan (mathematician); David Kidd (information science; publisher; journalist).

Challenges of IDR

We first discussed IDR broadly and acknowledging that our own forays into IDR have proven to be halting affairs for manifold reasons. At the top of the list is that academia simply isn’t built to handle ideas that cross more than a couple of disciplinary boundaries.

The structure of contemporary academia is such that each discipline is neatly siloed, hammering away at its own problems and happily outputting to its specialist journals. This approach is safe, the institutions know where to put people (biologists go in the biosciences building), the funding bodies know how to fund it (biologists get money for biology), the researchers know where to publish (biology journals).

However, step outside the bounds of this machine and things start to break down. If a particular question is best answered by individuals from three or more different departments, the academy just puts it in the too hard basket. There are few or no facilities to encourage interaction between disciplines. Communication is difficult. Funding bodies don’t know how to judge the merit of the research. And journals shy away from any content that isn’t explicitly within their remit.

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Synthesis in Provence

4 04 2011

Sacrebleu! I’ve had an abstract on interdisciplinarity and Synthesis accepted for the International Journal of Arts & Sciences conference in Aix-en-Provence in southern France.

It goes a little something like this:

Most would agree that interdisciplinary research (IDR) is oft lauded but relatively little employed in contemporary academia. While the benefits of IDR are widely recognised – such as it yielding new questions, approaches and insights by combining the findings and methodologies of multiple specialist disciplines – there are considerable barriers to effective IDR. These include inherent difficulties in communication between specialist disciplines, challenges securing funding, a lack of journals dedicated to non-specialist research and cultural clashes and power struggles between individuals and departments within institutions and between disciplines. These challenges are compounded by the lack of an overarching framework guiding how IDR is conducted. In this paper, I propose the formation of just such a framework. Where traditional IDR is conducted in a bi-lateral manner, this new framework represents a multi-lateral approach, analogous to a United Nations of IDR. Under this framework, IDR would be driven by specially trained specialist-generalists who are able to communicate and translate between individuals from multiple disciplines, raise new questions to be investigated, bring individuals from disparate disciplines together, help secure funding, and facilitate IDR, outputting it to both specialist journals as well as new journals dedicated to IDR. Such an approach could encourage greater IDR, thus liberating many insights locked away within specialist disciplines to be shared more broadly.

It was a somewhat off-the-cuff initiative, sending an abstract in. But I’ll be in Latvia early May, Turkey for a week after that, goodness knows where for a week after that (attempting to complete a production deadline on Australian Life Scientist remotely), and then this is just after. Figured I’d pop in.

It’s a part of my ongoing sub-obsession with interdisciplinarity and my mad dog idea of how to improve it called Synthesis.

In fact, I had a very motivating meeting with some other interested individuals, including John Wilkins from Evolving Thoughts, on how to make the idea of a massively-interdisciplinary meta-discipline work. I’ll be posting something soon on what was discussed at that meet, and where we’re going next.

So, if you’re in France in the first week of June, do drop in to the conference. I’ll be the chap with the beard and antipodean accent rambling on about having all disciplines hold hands around a tree and cry together, then go get a grant.


Chaos, Levels of Explanation and Interdisciplinarity

27 03 2011

I’ve been thinking a lot about interdisciplinary research (IDR) of late. (One day I’ll spend a lot of time thinking about finishing my thesis, but hey.)

It seems that one of the most fundamental questions to ask is: why do we have separate disciplines at all?

Seems obvious, but often the unanswered obvious questions are the most interesting. Delving into them can reveal something illuminating about our assumptions about how things are, and even reveal some false intuitions.

The simple answer might be that there’s no one discipline that can tackle every question we might want to ask. Okay, why?

Well, probably because such a discipline would be unmanageably complex. Far easier to carve up nature – and the questions we want to ask about her – into bite size pieces.

But why carve it where we do?

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Introducing Synthesis: the Science and Philosophy of Everything

23 12 2010

There’s an academic discipline missing. Terrible oversight. About time we put it right. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll call it ‘Synthesis,’ although you can call it whatever you like. In essence, it’s the science and philosophy of everything. All at once.

The interrelation of only a few academic disciplines.

Synthesis is a massively interdisciplinary meta-discipline that seeks to weave together all other fields into a single, holistic tapestry, and which serves to facilitate interdisciplinary interaction between disparate academic disciplines with a vision to share insights and open new avenues of enquiry.

Why do we need Synthesis?

There’s no question that increasing academic specialisation has been a growing trend over the past couple of centuries. Specialisation isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s the only way we can hope to tackle the deep and complex problems that occur at the fringes of our understanding of the natural world. But there’s an increasing awareness that having dozens – if not hundreds – of siloed disciplines, each with their own language, methodology, sharp boundaries and cadre of specialists, makes fruitful conversation between disparate disciplines more difficult.

Yet, each of these disciplines is attempting to explain some facet of the very same world.

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