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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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March 20, 2013

Thought for the Day, On Interdisciplinary Research

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Posted by Derek

This quote caught my eye fromNature's "Trade Secrets" blog, covering a recent conference. Note that the Prof. Leggett mentioned is a 2003 Nobel physics laureate:

It’s been a recent trend to mix disciplines and hope the results will solve some of science’s stickier problems. But is it possible the pendulum has swung too far? Leggett told the audience the term ‘interdisciplinarity’ is often “abused.”

“I don’t myself feel it is a good thing for government committees and so forth to encourage interdisciplinarity for its own sake. Some of these committees – at least in my experience – seem to be under the impression that interdisciplinarity is a sort of sauce, which you can put on otherwise unpromising ingredients, to improve the whole collection,” Prof. Leggett said. “I don’t really think that is right. The problem with that kind of approach is that sometimes people get the impression that simply to attack a problem in biology for the sake of attacking a problem in biology is itself a virtue.”

It's interesting that Leggett would use biology as an example. There's been a long history of physics/biology crossovers, going back to Schrödinger's What is Life?: and George Gamow's interest in DNA. Francis Crick originally studied physics, and Richard Feynman did very good work on sabbatical in Max Delbrück's lab. (Here's a rundown of these and other connections).

But Leggett does indeed have a good point, one that applies to all sorts of other "magic recipes" for inducing creativity. If we knew how to induce that, we'd have a hell of a lot more of it, has always been my opinion. A lot of great things have come out of the borderlands between two sciences, but just the fact that you're going out into those territories doesn't assure you of a thing.

Comments (22) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Who Discovers and Why


1. Wile E. Coyote on March 20, 2013 11:24 AM writes...

For the biology-physics collaborations, it appears to be largely the physicists contributing to biology, not the biologists contributing to physics. Why is that?

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2. Assay Guy on March 20, 2013 11:39 AM writes...

I'd add that the term "translational research" falls into this category. It's a hot buzzword that has NO substance. What research do we (biopharma folks) do that is NOT intended to translate into a therapeutic??

@ Mr Coyote: It's because most biologists (myself included) have a limited understanding of physics (said to sound of physics concepts flying over my head). Biology may be hard (and it is), but my brain cramps when exposed to many physics concepts.

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3. sciencegeist on March 20, 2013 11:52 AM writes...

"but just the fact that you're going out into those territories doesn't assure you of a thing"
-Shouldn't this be said of ALL research. Collectively, research does lead to progress. But, how often does a single project lead directly its original premise.

@Coyote - physicists (and chemists) run to biology because that's where the money is. If the money were in physics, you could bet your 401k that chemists and biologists would be flocking to that discipline.

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4. jrftzgb on March 20, 2013 12:02 PM writes...

I think a huge problem that not many people thought about was that there might be a lack of understanding of the other disciplines.

Each discipline has it's own culture, synthesis is a great example of this. These cultures tend to clash more than we think, a simple example might be between a theoretical group and a synthetic group. The synthetic group spends a huge amount of time at the bench, and in many ways the culture of synthesis is defined by this time at the bench. The theoretical group is more likely to spend a huge amount of time thinking about what the data produced in an experiment means. That time interpreting can look like being lazy and doing very little to someone who spends all their time at the bench. Just an example of a possible culture clash. (please note that I don't think theoretical scientists are lazy).
At a fundamental level an engineer, a biologist, a chemist, and a physicist (leaving out sub disciplines) approach things differently. Chemists don't report a variance when they publish a yield of reaction for example.
I guess what I'm saying is that most scientists don't seem to recognize the difference in cultures, and the lens that each person trained in a specific discipline looks at a problem through. It hinders communication, it hinders interaction, and it hinder creativity. Diversity of thought is a great thing, and interdisciplinary collaboration is a place where diversity of thought should be a major driving force for new ideas. If we approach it without expecting a culture clash between disciplines, then we won't be ready to overcome these clashes.

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5. rg0p on March 20, 2013 12:26 PM writes...


From a practical standpoint, I have to agree with sciencegeist... However, from a philosophic view, physics as a science is more fundamental and can be applied towards understanding of all other sciences. Hence one with deep understanding of physics is able to, or at least at least attempts to apply its principles to solve problems in other fields of science.

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6. watcher on March 20, 2013 12:48 PM writes...

I have just finised reading "Cathedrals of Science". In many cases, it is clearly demonstrated in this treatment that progress is often made by those who understand a problem in one area that can be approached by progress already made in another. When "standing on the shoulder's for giants", it's important to recognize that the giants can oftn be found from different disciplines.

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7. Anon on March 20, 2013 12:57 PM writes...

Problems solved with interdisciplinary individuals/groups happen because that person is genuinely curious (a luxury many of us can no longer afford in this job environment) and ends up helping to solve a problem based on their outlook. I do not believe this is something you can force. Bringing in a statistician to trouble shoot a western blot doesn't make sense...

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8. luigi on March 20, 2013 1:08 PM writes...

Sounds like most of the EU inter country collaborations - 10-11 labs "collaborating" on problems they can con the Brussel-heads to pay for

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9. Boo on March 20, 2013 1:36 PM writes...

I second Anon's comment (#7) that problems "solved with interdisciplinary individuals/groups happen because that person is genuinely curious." I've been witness to any number of extremely expensive interdisciplinary Centers for This and That where there has been next to zero actual interdisciplinary collaboration. Sticking an X-Ray crystallography lab next to a gene expression lab next to a fluid dynamics lab, all in a building with whiteboards in the halls and open floor plans is not the recipe for success, but we keep spending millions on that kind of thing.

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10. DCRogers on March 20, 2013 3:00 PM writes...

Let me speak up for interdisciplinary science. While it's not a "magic sauce", I support funding aimed at the border-regions, as they tend to be given the cold shoulder from funding sources in the core areas.

As an example, my Ph.D. was considered "cross-disciplinary" as we were working on using artificial intelligence methods to solve problems in chemistry. The chemists thought us odd because our lab didn't smell: we couldn't be chemists; the comp sci folks thought us odd because we didn't care about *what* method worked, just that it worked.

As for funding, if it hadn't been for ARPA (not DARPA -- long time ago!), neither the field of computer science or chemistry would have provided a single sou of funds for us wackos.

(And as for whether computational chemistry has since provided any "magic sauce", some in chemistry might be more inclined to label our output as "toxic waste"... as for computer scientists, they still just ignore us. Oh well... plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose...)

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11. esims on March 20, 2013 4:01 PM writes...

let's be honest biology is a highly descriptive science lacking a lot of important information (just think about biochemical pathways & cell signaling posters): when do proteins interact & how fast, concentration inside the cell, substrates, binding partners, localization, PTMs, turnover, ...

In the next years biology has to move into some kind of quantitative direction both to make half way sense of the data that we already have and to get better & more reliable data. Therefore you need extensive physics, chemistry, and even more importantly mathematical modeling. Unfortunately biological training normally lacks those skills and it can take some time to explain somebody, who has no clue about the matter, e.g. what model you want ...

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12. Curious Wavefunction on March 20, 2013 4:08 PM writes...

I find it kind of strange that this question is being even contemplated in the year 2013. Almost every field is now interdisciplinary except perhaps for pure mathematics, and even there people are debating the use of "computer proofs". If I randomly pick a professor in any physics, chemistry, biology or computer science department across the country, chances are that he or she is using some "non-classical" tools borrowed from other disciplines. 99% of us are already interdisciplinary scientists.

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13. Esteban on March 20, 2013 6:33 PM writes...

@rg0p: I think you've nailed it. An even more fundamental discipline is mathematics. Mathematicians have contributed to understanding in other fields, most notably physics, but it's doubtful there are many, if any, examples of non-mathematicians contributing meaningfully to mathematics.

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14. alf on March 20, 2013 6:47 PM writes...

CW: I think your answer helps to explain the question. Perhaps Prof. Leggett thinks that grant proposals now give too much weight to interdisciplinary team approaches at the potential expense of the proposal quality. Perhaps single discipline approaches are now under appreciated?

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15. RKN on March 20, 2013 8:20 PM writes...

When I enrolled in biochemistry years ago I admitted I had never taken a course in biology, though I had over satisfied the chemistry prerequisites for the course. I recalled having once dissected a frog in high school. No sweat the prof said, we can teach the chemist biology; visa versa, not so easy.

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16. Anonymous on March 20, 2013 8:27 PM writes...

I finished grad school almost 10 years ago. When I look at the webpages of recently hired professors in my old department, I have no idea what the hell any of them actually do - seems like all of the newer faculty's research interests are some mishmash of nano-bio-materials-cosmology that tries to be everything to everyone.

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17. Anonymous on March 21, 2013 3:15 AM writes...

@Curious Wavefunction: I partly agree with you, but on the other hand you have to consider that the term "interdisciplinary" also changes as the research field progresses. I wouldnt call docking in med chem interdisciplinary anymore, thas was 50 years ago, but the science behind each one is completly different.

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18. rg0p on March 21, 2013 9:07 AM writes...

@Esteban, Very true. Mathematics being the most fundamental philosophy and provides foundation for all sciences and even other fields of study. However, your last sentence, '....but it's doubtful there are many, if any, examples of non-mathematicians contributing meaningfully to mathematics...', reminds me of a discussion we had when I was in grad school, a long time ago! A friend of mine who was a (theoretical) physics grad student, made a statement (to paraphrase): "Physicists (theoreticians), contribute more to field of mathematics these days than mathematicians, as we (physicists) discover newer mathematical methods we need to solve our problems...." I 'm neither a mathematician nor a physicist to offer a sound judgement on such claim. Any thoughts or arguments, anyone??

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19. CMCguy on March 21, 2013 1:53 PM writes...

I know drug discovery and development can not occur without extensive interdisciplinary interactions that go well beyond just the sciences however making the connections of diverse expertise is insufficient without strong leadership to guide and focus the process (including mediation of disputes). Just because ingredients get mixed together do not mean magic sauce will turn out to desired taste.

If as #12 CWF suggests we have already reached a state where everyone is significantly overlapping in order to have increased success it would be better off to create mainly higher "purity" in each field with still a few cross-over people to act as conduits to bring together more concentrated knowledges which can be balanced out depending on the project requirement rather than already diluted mindsets that may not be able to solve the problems.

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20. HFM on March 21, 2013 1:54 PM writes...

@rg0p: It's not my field, but I think a lot of theoretical physicists are really doing math - they just work on problems that are anchored to models of how the universe actually functions. It's the same for statisticians working on biology problems.

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21. Esteban on March 21, 2013 4:33 PM writes...

@rg0p, @HFM: Admittedly I'm out of my depth as well, so it could be that these days theoretical physicists are inventing new math. Somewhere I read a critique of string theory which stated that its principles are not testable, at least based on current technology. If the case, string theory-based research is really just as abstract a pursuit as is mathematics, i.e., maybe string theorists really are mathematicians, not physicists in the usual sense.

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22. Li on March 27, 2013 5:47 AM writes...

Random notes:
1. If creativity is a "concept mutation" then increasing the mutation rate, increasing creativity, may be fatal to any organization. Pehaps what was meant was marginal creativity? (Sorry to go all semantic).
2. There are a huge number of examples where devices, methods, and questions are transplanted with productive results. Sometimes it requires someone with no skin in the game to change the game. I agree that 'inter-disciplinary' is becoming so ubiquitous as to be a near vapid term.
3. Different disciplines differ in their levels of abstraction, which has been very useful in both mathematics and science. Has a drug company ever invited an economist to participate in drug discovery in a non-traditional role? (as a scientist rather than a accountant)(for example)
4. The argument that more mathematicians contribute to science than the inverse seems to me to be unlikely because of the size of the two populations. In absolute terms, the number of scientists using cutting edge/new mathematics must be an order of magnitude greater than the number of mathematicians working with cutting edge/novel science. Can a person who is working with the physical be called a mathematician? Can a person working with numbers, sets, rings, groups, etc. be called a scientist? Or rather, what is the resulting paper? An argument of category or of substance? If the paper proves it, its math, if the paper confirms it, its science (except for all of those pesky conjectures)...

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