Last week I attended a distinguished lecture as part of the University of Warwick’s 50th Anniversary celebrations. Professor Brian Cox and Dr Michael Scott discussed the future for Arts-Science collaboration, how public engagement and impact are influencing interdisciplinary activity and barriers to Interdisciplinarity.
Professor Brian Cox is a PPARC Advanced Fellow at the School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Manchester. He is best known to the public as the presenter of science TV and radio programmes.
Dr Michael Scott is an Associate Professor in Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick, author of several books on ancient Greek and Roman society, and has written and presented a range of documentaries.
The first question put to them by the University of Warwick’s Vice Chancellor Professor Sir Nigel Thrift was, what is the major difference between Arts and Science?
Professor Brian Cox started by saying there is no difference in the sense that both are motivated by to explore things that interest us, but they are different in that Science you can definitely be wrong – you can make statements that turn out to be wrong. Dr Michael Scott suggested that Arts and Humanities is an ongoing process of debate. In the discipline bound world we find ourselves in today it stops us bringing Arts and Science together in a 360 degree view.
So what are the key challenges of bringing Arts and Science together?
Dr Michael Scott suggested the biggest barrier is interdisciplinary training – for example attending a conference or lecture in another discipline can be like a different language. He went on to use a cake metaphor – Arts isn’t the cherry on top of the cake, Arts & Humanities and Science are like ingredients that come together – they interlink like eggs and flour. The UK Research Councils want us to tackle problems we all face now. Professor Brian Cox added we need to ask why, as well as how and when. Science gives us a good idea of when but we need to also ask what caused it and why they did that – this is where interdisciplinary working can be useful.
Are there real advantages to interdisciplinary working or should we ignore it?
Professor Cox stated “if we are to be more interdisciplinary we need to be freer – we need to look at what is an academic? We are judged by the papers we publish and that drives you down a narrow avenue to specialise. But I think an academic should be more that that – our job is to think and teach.
Academic output prevents interdisciplinary collaboration, for example if I was to take time to develop this I would need to take a year off publishing in my niche to learn.”
Dr Scott added that the advantage is that we need to look at the world in a 360 degree way and we need improved communications from the start of student journeys, we need to teach in an interdisciplinary way and universities need the structures to support that.
This led onto the question of what would you change at universities to make it better?
Professor Cox suggested academics should not be measured by publications as it closes off the creative avenues. Academics should do what they are interested in and this can lead to discoveries – Einstein’s theory of relativity came from day dreaming.
Dr Scott suggested we need to create spaces at universities where academics can play and conversation happens, for example at UCL they have an Institute of Making.
If undergraduate degrees are interdisciplinary then we are creating new students that are interdisciplinary but we need to support them and create jobs when they finish that are multi-discipline posts.
We have become more risk adverse overtime – to break out of that is tough.
So what are the risks associated with it?
Career gaps that are necessary for you to learn new things and we are very ‘tribal’ people – we have tendencies to be tribal within our niche so this can be a barrier to break into. It’s perhaps easier if you are more established in a field and your career to make changes than say an ECR or postdoc.
We also need to change the view that interdisciplinary work is “lightweight” and not as in-depth.
Professor Brian Cox said leadership and the senior management are key driver to enable changes, along with funding schemes that support fellowships that are valued by multi-disciplines.
The pressures of being measured by publications can act as a real barrier and prevent interdisciplinary work but there are also many positive examples of where Arts and Sciences are interdisciplinary with success. The future of interdisciplinarity should be about freedom to explore and generate ideas. To do this we need improved communications between disciplines, to teach in an interdisciplinary way and universities need the structures to support that.
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Iggy, the educational social network designed to help gifted and talented young people aged 13-18 realise their full potential at the University of Warwick have put together a storyify of the event which you can see here.
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