EU Science Hub

Bridging silos in biosciences

Increasing crossdisciplinarity in science is expected to lead to more effective research strategies.
Increasing crossdisciplinarity in science is expected to lead to more effective research strategies.
Jan 13 2020

A new JRC report promotes crossdisciplinarity in biosciences to better inform policy and address societal needs. 

Biosciences are rich in innovation. Sophisticated methods based on new technologies are constantly emerging, such as gene editing, organ-on-a-chip and super-resolution imaging.

However, compartmentalisation within biosciences is limiting the potential for new methods to translate from one domain to another.

It also hinders scientific communities from interacting and collaborating to tackle big issues like cancer.

"In science we've usually referred to ourselves as physicists, chemists, biologists and so on…. But nowadays traditional disciplines can sometimes be an arbitrary demarcator of scientific activity and knowledge. It's the methods we use that are actually becoming more important in defining our scientific domain", explains Maurice Whelan, JRC scientist.

Greater connectivity for greater impact in biomedical research  

Despite considerable investment in basic and applied research, many debilitating diseases still lack any effective treatment.

Take Alzheimer’s disease for example. There are only 5 drugs approved for treating it, and these only offer minimal benefits in some patients, without any improvement in long-term prognosis.

And to make matters worse, this disease has the highest failure rate in drug development (over 99%) with no new drug appearing in the last 10 years.

Often the type of scientific method used by an investigator, for example based on an animal model (in vivo), a cell-based assay (in vitro) or a computer simulation (in silico), strongly influences the way in which research problems are both formulated and addressed.

Increasing crossdisciplinarity to avoid overreliance on any particular method and to facilitate more integrated approaches to problem solving is expected to lead to more effective research strategies and hopefully to more effective treatments.

As the JRC report suggests, focusing on methods as a means to bridge across scientific communities has considerable potential to enhance crossdisciplinarity in a practical way, so as to reach the desired impact on what truly matters for the patient.

In fact, crossdisciplinary is also key to bridge the gap between scientific research and clinical practice.

This could be achieved by putting in place social, emotion-oriented and lifestyle-related interventions, and, on the other hand, by making innovation and scientific breakthroughs more tailored to patients’ real needs.

 "One of the most common challenges to crossdisciplinarity is the absence of a common language. It is therefore difficult to describe methods or compare the different types of scientific evidence they generate", explains Maurice.

We need more acknowledgement and understanding of these issues if scientific communities are to devise ways to bridge knowledge and practices, for the ultimate benefit of citizens.

Our recommendations

In publishing its report today, "Bridging across Methods in the Biosciences" – BeAMS – the JRC sets out 4 key recommendations:

  • Gain a better understanding of cases where scientific methods do succeed in becoming bridgeable across disciplines and sectors, through analysis of historical and current paradigm cases, and extract lessons from these;
  • Create new opportunities to facilitate and experiment with ways to bridge across methods;
  • Analyse existing policies and initiatives regarding open access, open science and others, and see what gaps there are between data and method complementarity;
  • Include more explicit criteria for crossdisciplinary research and bridgeability across methods in funding calls, and in assessments of research and innovation projects.

As Horizon Europe paves the way for a Missions-orientated approach to research policy in the next EU framework programme, it will be important to consider these recommendations to facilitate meaningful crossdisciplinarity to ensure success.