OPINION: Laureate Fellows offer best recipe for interdisciplinary soup

Merlin Crossley
Wednesday, 28 September, 2011
Merlin Crossley *

Do you ever worry when you are promised something for nothing? I am worried every time I hear - “by collaborating in this multidisciplinary high-level enterprise we can be more than the sum of our parts”.

Increasingly, we are being encouraged to sing the praises of multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, cross-disciplinary and trans-disciplinary research. I’m not imagining it. Checking the new ‘culturomics’ website (which beautifully graphs the frequency of word usage across time) confirms that these words are seeping into our vocabulary and track closely to other terms often referred to as ‘management jargon’, embedding the notion that collaboration per se is inherently good.

My concern is that artificial collaborations offer all the synergies of a three-legged race. And, in pursuing collaboration for its own sake, we risk overlooking the need to nurture and champion those brilliant individuals upon whose shoulders the rest of us stand. The apparently simple logic of collaboration is that as the big problems facing society are multifaceted only interdisciplinary approaches can offer solutions.

It’s true that when we reach the point of delivering solutions we need elaborate multi-disciplinary teams of experts. However, life changing contributions to big problems like infectious diseases, world hunger, energy and communications, have been made by individually-driven exploration, discovery and invention. Indeed, Nobel Prizes seek to recognize contributions that confer the greatest benefit on mankind and, strikingly, Nobel Prizes cannot be shared by more than three people.

No human endeavour occurs in isolation and all high achieving researchers owe a debt to boundless past generations and to contemporary collaborators, but Alfred Nobel recognized that individual leadership is a critical ingredient that should be recognized and encouraged. If we stopped to look, we’d find that the strength of contemporary interdisciplinary research generally correlates with the strengths of the disciplines – if individual researchers are weak the research will be weak too, and vice versa. I am also surprised when I hear that interdisciplinary research is more important than ever. Yet, I recall that more than a hundred years ago Charles Darwin synthesised the work of the economist Thomas Malthus and the geologist Charles Lyell with his own observations in biology and came up with evolution as an explanation for the origin of species.

"Boundaries are dissolving"


The same goes for popular claims that the most exciting research these days is occurring at the boundaries between disciplines and at the same time we are told the boundaries are dissolving. This paradoxical idea sounds interesting but I don’t think it is true or that it means very much. Some exciting work does arise when advances in one discipline facilitate progress in a different discipline. When the British Navy was grappling with navigation one single person, John Harrison, played a dominant role in the development of a series of seaworthy clocks which achieved the accuracy in time keeping required to calculate longitude.  It was terrific when Captain Cook used a clock based on one of Harrison’s designs and discovered many new regions of the world. But, it is the leaders like Cook and Harrison, and their individual discoveries, that are remarkable, not the fact that they were operating at these mysterious boundaries.

That said, there is always a case for integrating knowledge and facilitating the uptake of advances emerging in different disciplines? My own view is that this is best done by identifying leading individual researchers and supporting these individuals properly.

This is something practical that works. The Nobel Prize provides funding specifically to high achieving individuals, who most notably must be alive and thereby able to personally oversee the use of the prize money. In the United States the legacy of Howard Hughes is used to individually support the highest-achieving researchers in the biomedical sciences and their productivity and achievements have been remarkable. In Australia, the Federation Fellowship scheme and its successor, the Laureate Fellowship scheme of the Australian Research Council, and the Australia Fellowship scheme of the National Health and Medical Research Council have supported very high-productivity researchers. These people have operated with such prominence that researchers in other disciplines have been drawn in to collaborate with them. This is how multidisciplinary research can be engendered and supported.

"Support individual excellence"


Surprisingly, schemes that support individual excellence are not easy to establish or sustain – the elite nature of the schemes seems to work against them. Fewer Laureate Fellows are being offered than there were Federation Fellows and the future of the Australia Fellowship scheme is uncertain. Remarkably few voices are raised to support these pinnacles of excellence, in contrast to the frequent choruses calling for mechanisms to support collaborative networks and broader interdisciplinary initiatives.

Why is collaboration so prized, seemingly over individual excellence? The answer is almost certainly in the numbers. There are and only ever will be a handful of truly elite researchers and it is seen as self-serving if they appeal for more funding for themselves. Yet when the topic of collaboration arises many people realise they might benefit so hands go up in support of the larger community and murmurs of approval reverberate. Some cynics have even gone so far as to suggest that the current enthusiasm for all things collaborative may in stem from the fact that cross-disciplinary research is difficult to judge and is thus ideal for those wishing to avoid judgement - though I doubt this is a major motivation.

Performance and assessment of performance are important. If individual researchers stop performing it becomes obvious very quickly and the amount of funding they receive can be adjusted. It is much harder to determine whether a unique strategically and geographically collaborative assembly is working or not and very difficult to dismantle large multidisciplinary endeavours with diverse stakeholders and a wide array of dependents and advocates. This is particularly the case when a new interdisciplinary initiative is the first of its kind. Fortunately the Excellence in Research Australia exercise did judge disciplinary strength, but unfortunately it still used complex groupings that leant themselves to game playing. The New Zealand system - where every individual is assessed - arguably provides more reliable data that can be aggregated in any number of different ways.

Large multidisciplinary facilities do, of course, make good sense in some circumstances – things like the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy facilities. In the case of infrastructure, the more users the lower the cost per user. However, counting dependents is no way to assess the excellence of research itself – quantity does not equate with quality.

Robin Hood was famous for his collaborative approach and his ability to lead a diverse team of talented individuals. He was able to distribute wealth widely from the few rich to the many poor. But his main attribute was that he was the best marksman in the land. He achieved what he did firstly based on his legendary individual excellence.

Having schemes that support individual excellence are the first step to supporting collaboration and subsequent cross-disciplinary research. Australia has a long record of focusing on excellence in research and in running harmonious cross-disciplinary collaboration. The more we support dynamic research champions to lead collaborations, rather than requiring artificial networks, the more Australian research will prosper. I believe that expanding the senior research fellowship schemes like the Laureates and Australia Fellowships is the surest way of minimizing waste and of boosting Australia’s research excellence.

*Merlin Crossley is Dean of the UNSW Faculty of Science. He heads the Molecular Genetics and Gene Regulation laboratory, School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences.