FET - Living interdisciplinarity

Friday, 2 May, 2014
In the FET of Horizon 2020 interdisciplinarity is probably the key characteristic of the science and technology we are aiming to fund. But what is it?

FET has always been a home for interdisciplinary research. Have a look at the FET FP7 (2007-2013) project compendium and you will find collaborations between biologists, mathematicians, chemists, psychologists, computer scientists, climate experts, social scientists, neuroscientists, physicists, designers, artists, doctors, engineers, economists and more.

Some examples? The projects SWARM-ORGAN, PLANTOID and PLEASED use plant biology in different ways for future technology research, the first one for swarm-robotics inspired by cellular level morpho-genesis in plant roots, the second one by mimicking roots developments in a plant-like artefact and the last one by using plants as sensors for pollutants. The projects BACTOCOMEVOPROG, PLASWIRES and ABACUS try to use real bacteria for computing or for communication, while projects like NEUNEU, BIOMICS, ECCELL or RIBONETS take cellular processes as a basis to achieve the same. New techniques for self-assembly and self-organisation of computing devices and networks can be gleaned from chemistry, ecology, neuroscience or (cell-)biology as pioneered in projects like BION, 3DNEURON, BRAINBOW, e-FLUX, SECO, NASCENCE, ASSISI_BF or the support action INBIOSA. Numerous are the projects developing neuro- or bio-morphic devices like artificial eyes (EMORPH, CURVACE, SEEBETTER, RENVISION, VISUALISE) and other sensors (NEUROCHEM, BIOTACT), prosthesis (EVRYON, OPTONEURO, CLONS, RENACHIP, BRAINBOW, ENLIGHTENMENT, CORTICONIC, NEBIAS, robots and entire brain-like computers (SI ELEGANS, BRAINSCALES, BRAIN-I-NETS, HBP).
It is through such mind-stretching collaborations that FET projects push the boundaries of information and communication technology (ICT). But another manifestation of successful interdisciplinarity is that many FET projects demonstrated radically new possibilities for other sciences and industry sectors than ICT. For example: BOC  and CADMAD for pharmaceutical industry, EPIWORK and DYNANETS for epidemiology, NEUROSEEKER, BRAINLEAP , CONNECT, HIVE, HBP and 3x3D IMAGING for neuroscience, FOC and NESS (CSA) for finance and economics, HELICOID  in oncology, LIQUIDPUBLICATION and BS4ICTRSRCH (CSA) in publishing, MD and INSITE (CSA) for innovation management, COSIT in non-destructive material testing, UnLocX in medical imaging, SKAT-VG  and URBANIXD in design, SUMO in climate modelling.

In collaborative research it is now rare to find just a single discipline (there are exceptions, also in FET). In the well-established configurations the collaboration is one of a transaction: one discipline does its thing and hands over to the other one (a new material is synthesised, another group characterises it, and a third group works on the theoretical model). This is especially true in science and engineering. Precise planning at the outset, clear task allocation and timing are the symptoms of this kind of 'pipeline collaboration'. These are good and productive, result driven collaborations, in which one discipline provides a clear service to the other, but they are not likely to dramatically change the face of science and technology. For this, each discipline stays too much in its comfort zone of established knowledge and familiar methodologies.

Collaborations with the social sciences and humanities in technology projects are also often more pro forma than anything else. Too often these disciplines are called in when most of the technology work is done. The learning in these configurations is then also typically one-way: the social scientists will have to learn about the technology they are called for, but the technologists don’t learn about the social science (worse, they often think it is rather accessory or self-evident, hence the pro forma). Many technologists still need to recognise that social sciences and humanities can be helpful throughout.

What motivates interdisciplinarity in the first place? One is tempted to reduce it to an argument of complexity: the more difficult a problem, the more disciplines should shine their light on it. This is not false per se, but what are often missing in such a construction are the pathways between the disciplines to really learn from one another. In such cases, the collaboration falls apart in disjoint discourses without a genuine synergy between them. There are many examples where promising combinations of disciplines failed in practice to even develop a common vocabulary or to show a real impact of one discipline on the other. Where this happens regularly is collaborations between ICT and experimental neuroscience or biology. Simply overcoming the hurdles of common understanding is already difficult. On top of that, it is rarely taken into account up front how different the rate of progress will be in each 'track', and thus the opportunities for crossing over are rare and happen often late, or too late in a project.

In these constructions interdisciplinarity is halted at the level of one-way 'inspiration': pick and choose what inspires, and shape it within your own discipline.

The kind of interdisciplinarity that we are looking for in FET is a deeper one. It is an ongoing process of learning and exchange that, at least initially, deconstructs more than it constructs, because everyone involved is forced to put into question the fundamentals of its own view of the world. This is hard work and risky business. For example, it is one thing to build a cellular automaton in software, but quite something else to build a computing device with real biological cells. Everything the computer scientist knows about programming, algorithms, data structures, and so on has to be questioned. And the biologist has to try to make sense of cell interactions in terms of information exchange, rather than chemistry. This you can not do by reading each others books: interdisciplinarity has to be lived. But if it works, the computer scientist will think differently about computing, and the biologist about cells. The advance is synergistic.

These are probably some of the most valuable side-effects of the deep synergistic interdisciplinarity that we are looking for in FET: it breeds a kind of researcher that can bridge into the terminologies and methodologies of other fields. The permeability of disciplinary boundaries changes the way in which a researcher involved looks at its own discipline. More so, such a researcher will not be afraid to question the fundamentals of its own field from trying to genuinely understand how others look at it. This works especially well where teams don't share the same framework of assumptions that many of the harder science and engineering disciplines have (more or less) in common. Yet, this dissonance is at the heart of the kind of interdisciplinarity that FET is looking for. Certainly, this requires excellence in ones own discipline if the obligatory 'deconstruction' is not to be fatal or, at least, entirely demotivating.

Interdisciplinarity is something we at FET can easily 'call for', but it is harder to get. It must be said that the European collaborative project is not the easiest vehicle for this kind of deep interdisciplinary collaboration. Typically, different partners do not spend enough time together, face-to-face. The rigorous separation of workpackages and deliverables linked to them keeps the multiple tracks of investigation too much apart, leaving the real integration of knowledge undocumented, if existing at all. In order to make it work, interdisciplinarity has to be taken seriously by design. Long-term stays, open-ended agenda's, diversity in the teams (discipline, age, gender, culture,…), measures to cultivate the right mindset (including the right to fail) and ongoing mutual learning should be carefully designed into a genuinely interdisciplinary methodology. Only then will the participants feel that they can afford to engage with an almost artistic sensitivity to go towards the unknown and see what it does to you. Needless to say that what this does to you is non-reversible – FET changes your life.