Blurring The Boundaries In Science: GYSS@one-north

At the Global Young Scientist Summit 2013, a panel of Nobel laureates from various disciplines discussed the difficulties of multidisciplinary research.

AsianScientist (Jan. 24, 2013) – Multidisciplinary research is a term heard often that describes collaborative work between physicists, chemists and biologists.

At the Global Young Scientist Summit 2013 taking place this week in Singapore, Asian Scientist Magazine sat in on a panel discussion featuring Nobel laureates from various disciplines.

Chaired by Prof. Bertil Andersson, President of the Nanyang Technological University of Singapore, the panel comprised Prof. Sir Anthony Leggett, awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2003; Prof. Harmut Michel, awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1988; and Dr. Sir Richard Roberts, awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1993.

Blurring the boundaries

Boundaries between scientific disciplines are becoming less distinct, the panelists said, as scientists undertake more collaborations to answer complex questions that require expertise from various fields.

“First, it is not so clear what is physics, biology, chemistry, earth sciences and so on, because the borders are a little bit blurred. Also, major scientific challenges probably need more than one expertise,” said Prof. Andersson.

Scientists are expanding their domain knowledge beyond a single subject. Dr. Roberts highlighted his own journey from a childhood passion in mathematics to an undergraduate degree in chemistry, followed by a doctoral thesis in molecular biology and a glittering career in research that involved bioinformatics.

Prof. Sir Richard Roberts at the GYSS@one-north.

“I’m a big advocate of changing fields. I like the idea of changing, going into a new field with a fresh mind because you can ask stupid questions. Instead of people saying ‘Oh, you’re really stupid,’ they’ll say ‘Oh well, he doesn’t know the field so you’ll excuse him,’ and then they’ll answer the question and very often discover that you’ve asked questions that they don’t know the answer to,” Prof. Roberts said.

While more collaboration across scientific disciplines is something to be celebrated and encouraged, all the panelists agreed that governments should avoid pushing multidisciplinary research for its own sake. Prof. Leggett said he shudders at how the term ‘interdisciplinarity’ is sometimes 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 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. I don’t really think that’s right,” Prof. Leggett said.

In the panelists’ view, collaboration across disciplines should be an organic process that occurs in response to a problem that scientists are already interested in solving.

Dr. Roberts said, “When you find a problem that requires several different approaches, smart people, when they cannot do it themselves, will go find a collaborator. Collaboration is what makes science go forward. There are almost none of us who can do it by ourselves… So I think the idea of forcing interdisciplinarity is a wrong idea, it’s a mistaken idea.”

Advice for young scientists: Ask stupid questions

Prof. Anthony Leggett at the GYSS@one-north.
The eminent panelists had plenty of wise words for the budding scientists in the audience. For those hoping to follow in their footsteps and one day win science’s top award, the three Nobel laureates agreed that scientists should follow their own curiosity and not consciously aim to do Nobel Prize-winning work. Most importantly, scientists should not be afraid of asking stupid questions.

Prof. Leggett cited the example of Einstein who asked the question, “Why do all bodies, independently of their composition, or their weight, or their shape; why do they all fall at the same rate in a vacuum in the Earth’s field?”

“People had known it was so for 300 years but nobody ever bothered to ask why. Now by asking that simple question, Albert Einstein essentially set off a train of thought that led to the general theory of relativity, a huge component of modern physics,” he said.

Establish new techniques

Prof. Harmut Michel at the GYSS@one-north.
Prof. Michel believes the establishment of new methods is a good way toward a Nobel Prize.

“All new methods of importance have been awarded a Nobel Prize: NMR, mass spectrometry, DNA sequencing, protein sequencing, functional magnetic resonance imaging, electron microscopy; all the techniques which you nowadays use have been awarded a Nobel Prize. So if you can think of a novel use for your knowledge in a new field and you can make it into a new method, you are certainly a candidate,” Prof. Michel said.

While the scope of research is increasingly expanding beyond subject boundaries, the panelists cautioned against trying to be an expert in everything. Scientists should know a reasonable amount across subjects, but they need to remain focused on the question at hand, and to engage others to help with other areas.

While becoming an expert in a particular technique or technology is useful, Prof. Leggett warned, “It’s more important to focus on one or more important topics. Over the course of 10 or 20 years, [a given] technology is going to become obsolete.”

Creating a successful research environment

Prof. Michel shared that funding structure was important in influencing a research environment.

“At the Max Planck Institute, you have long-term research funding and you can really start risky projects and deal with important questions, which is very difficult to do on a five-year grant basis,” said Prof. Michel.

Prof. Leggett believed that a focus on teaching enabled his research to flourish. Recounting his time at the University of Sussex where his Nobel Prize-winning work was conducted, Prof. Leggett explained that his principal job was to be a good teacher. While the university did not make research compulsory, they were highly supportive of his research efforts.

“I found that extremely helpful and extremely relaxing. There was no particular attempt to steer my research in any particular direction,” said Prof. Leggett.

However, times have changed and Prof. Leggett rued the change in ethos in universities today where research is prized over teaching. “I find that very uncongenial,” he said.

An avid believer in teaching, Prof. Leggett urged all young scientists to spend time teaching. Indeed, Prof. Leggett considers teaching experience a priority when hiring researchers for his lab.

“I look for enthusiasm and a measure of self-propulsion. And one other thing I would certainly look for is… have they gone out of their way to do any teaching? And if they have, that’s a big plus,” said Prof. Leggett.

Managing collaborations

Another trend that the panelists disproved of was the inordinate emphasis by funding agencies on a scientist’s publication record. “Frankly, I think that counting publications is a complete nonsense,” said Prof. Leggett.

Moreover, the importance of authorship in publications was seen to cause problems when managing collaborations. To deal with this, the panelists believed communication was key.

According to Dr. Roberts, “Ultimately, this boils down to whoever is leading the team. This person has to make tough decisions and explain to the members of the team what’s going on.”

Nevertheless, assessing author contribution in publications is not a perfect system, he said. “The published literature is not a very good medium for really showing who did what,” said Dr. Roberts.

Summing up the discussion, Dr. Roberts shared with the audience what he thought was the most difficult part of scientific research – managing people.

“Science is easy but people are difficult,” he quipped.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine. Photos: Asian Scientist Magazine.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

David Tan is a post-doctoral researcher at the A*STAR Institute of Medical Biology, Singapore. David received a PhD in stem cell biology from the University of Cambridge, UK.

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