Undercover Economist

February 24, 2012 10:09 pm

A problem shared is one quickly solved

Promoting cross-disciplinary research need not require a mysterious blend of social-networking tools and funky collaborative architectural spaces

Andrew Exum, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington DC, recently blogged about the question of military intervention in Syria. It wasn’t about the pros and cons but about the difficulties in weighing up this kind of decision: “Regional specialists rarely understand military capabilities and options well enough to make an argument for or against, and those who understand military capabilities and options rarely understand the regional dynamics well enough to make an argument for or against.”

This problem is hardly limited to military affairs. One reason the financial sector grew so grotesquely vulnerable just before the crisis was that the knowledge required to spot trouble brewing was distributed across different kinds of people – accountants, psychologists, economists, lawyers, politicians, practitioners and others – who had no reason to talk to each other.

In academia, the challenge of encouraging interdisciplinary research is at least recognised as a problem. The advancing frontier of scientific knowledge forces most researchers to specialise in ever narrower fields and, as a result, collaboration between these silos is essential. I recently visited the Oxford Martin School, a seven-year-old initiative designed to foster cross-disciplinary projects at the University of Oxford. I talked to the school’s director, Ian Goldin, about the challenges of breaking down academic silos.

He thinks these silos are mostly artificial. Academic journals are largely specialised rather than interdisciplinary and official funding bodies shy away from interdisciplinary projects. The result is that academics with interdisciplinary interests have few ways to fund the research and few credible outlets for publishing the results. The Martin School has funding, but most of the researchers are either junior, with some freedom to experiment, or professors so senior they no longer need to worry about their publication record. The mid-career academics are missing. It is nice to hear the tenure system sometimes produces the hoped-for courage and independence, but not so nice that there is no career track for interdisciplinary researchers.

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Can we learn anything from the Martin School approach? One lesson is that an important problem can be a great focus for interdisciplinary work. “Problems tend to be interdisciplinary,” Goldin comments. To examine an issue such as migration or the spread of infectious diseases is to create a natural focus for separate specialists to find common ground.

That is all very well for slow-burning problems. Unfortunately, many problems surface without warning and demand action immediately. Syria is, arguably, a case in point. So was the collapse of Lehman Brothers. If there are no pre-existing lines of cross-silo communication at the moment of crisis, it is asking a lot for them to be established in time to share knowledge usefully.

If problems are one focal point for collaboration, tools can be another. An example: systems needed to deal with the gigantic data sets generated in finance, astronomy and oceanography. Such tools naturally bring together computer scientists and the statisticians, economists and scientists who might use the data. Goldin points to “crowdsourcing” as a second example of a cross-disciplinary tool, complexity science as a third and (optimistically, I feel) practical ethics as a fourth.

Perhaps the real lesson is that promoting cross-disciplinary research need not require a mysterious blend of social-networking tools and funky collaborative architectural spaces. All that is sometimes required is a shared problem, or a shared set of tools, and, above all, the money to pay for the job to be done.

Tim Harford’s latest book is ‘Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure’ (Little, Brown). To comment, please email magazineletters@ft.com

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