Interdisciplinary teamwork makes the dream work

The secret of life was discovered by an interdisciplinary team. It took a molecular biologist (James Watson), a physicist (Francis Crick), and a chemist (Rosalind Franklin), to crack the code of our DNA. This example goes to show that it does not take a single genius to solve a complicated problem, but rather a collection of smart minds with different perspectives and viewpoints. In my opinion, we need more interdisciplinary teamwork to solve the global challenges regarding energy, water, climate, food and health, that society faces today.

Opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration

The need for interdisciplinary collaboration is for example apparent at the cutting edge of natural sciences and computational sciences. Recent developments in Data Mining, Computational Modelling and Artificial Intelligence hold great promise in bringing natural sciences to the next level. However, most natural scientists are hugely underqualified in this area, while most computer scientists have never set foot in a wetlab. A successful interdisciplinary collaboration could include the application of a novel, self-learning computational model (developed by computer scientists) for the analysis of a vast quantity of experimental data (from natural scientists). By combining knowledge and expertise from both sides, this work becomes synergistic: the computational model is validated with relevant experimental data, and the experimental data offers additional important insights that would not have been found with traditional analysis methods.

Another emerging opportunity for interdisciplinary collaboration is the field of nanomedicine. Combining knowledge and skills from Nanotechnology, Biology and Medicine now enables the development of specific drug delivery systems, sophisticated imaging techniques and labs-on-a-chip, to name a few. Successful interdisciplinary collaborations in this field have already made important advances in basic sciences and diagnostics with nanodevices such as DNA chips.[1]

And the list doesn’t end there. There are countless examples of successful interdisciplinary efforts that have accomplished what no single discipline could have accomplished by itself. Additionally, there are numerous real-world problems that need an interdisciplinary approach. So much so, that Nature has dedicated a whole special issue to interdisciplinarity.[2]

Building a successful team

The first step towards an interdisciplinary dream team is finding the right scientific collaborators. This is key to any successful collaboration, but for interdisciplinary research especially, the synergy of the project will depend on the ability of the team to collaborate successfully. Keep in mind that the most successful teams include people with a diversity of personalities, perspectives, and cognitive styles, and that the collective intelligence has been shown to rise with the number of women in the team.[3] After the team has been assembled, it is important to take the time to build a fruitful relationship. There is a learning curve to understanding a different field with its common practices, opportunities and limitations, and it takes time to find just that sweet spot for interdisciplinary synergy. Consider a framework of regular meetings, workshops, symposia and co-teaching of (PhD) students or courses, to get everyone on the same page, learn to speak each other’s language and benefit from each other’s knowledge.

Funding opportunities for collaboration

Many funding bodies value and favor interdisciplinary proposals. Most of the calls within the European Horizon 2020 programme and its successor Horizon Europe are aimed at collaborative and interdisciplinary research. A specific example that funds fundamental interdisciplinary research is the European Research Council (ERC) Synergy Grant. This grant offers up to a maximum of € 10 million for a group of two to four principle investigators to tackle ambitious research problems by bringing different skills and resources together. Application for the next round of this grant is expected to open in September 2019.

Our assistance in building and managing consortia

Hezelburcht can support your interdisciplinary ambition by providing assistance in building and managing the interdisciplinary consortium, identifying the right funding opportunities and preparing successful grant applications.

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