By Mohammad Momenian
Our brain is comprised of neural networks. The repeated occurrence of an action or experience creates established networks in the brain. Some synapses in these networks are connected to each other more strongly than others. In other words, the more neurons fire together, the stronger they wire together. This neuroscience principle can be used as a metaphor to call attention to the role of funding bodies in supporting new interdisciplinary research.
At the turn of the last century, we witnessed the emergence of new interdisciplinary fields (Rosenfield, 1992), and only recently a Nature special issue was devoted to interdisciplinarity. In that special issue, Richard Van Noorden’s (2015) paper reports that interdisciplinary research is on the rise and some fields seem to have ‘fired and wired together’ more frequently than others.
From an evolutionary perspective, those fields which have established the strongest linkages survive and get the lion’s share of funding, while those with the thinnest connections get only a negligible amount of funding and are doomed to extinction sometime in the future.
As an example, consider the interaction between psychology and linguistics, which has led to a new branch called psycholinguistics. Such strong connections are not made overnight (although linkages can be accelerated in exceptional circumstance when large amounts of funding are provided). And maintaining strong connections requires ongoing funding.
How about newly-burgeoning connections such as between arts and biology? They are like toddlers who need to be taken care of in a motherly fashion. There is a zone of proximal development according to Lev Vygotsky, the Soviet psychologist, in which things from the periphery gradually step into the centre through the help of an external source . Funding bodies can play the role of the external sources in this zone to ‘cuddle’ these newly emerging fields so that they also have the chance to ‘fire and wire’ together.
Funding bodies must take risks and explore ‘dark valleys’. In neural networks this is where no neurons are connected. In terms of funding bodies this refers to the increasingly complicated nature of social and environmental problems and the need for new wirings between the fields to save our world.
Think about the new wirings and let us have your insights!
Rosenfield, P. L. (1992). The potential of transdisciplinary research for sustaining and extending linkages between the health and social sciences. Social Science & Medicine, 35, 11: 1343-1357.
Biography: Mohammad Momenian is an assistant professor of Applied Linguistics at Tarbiat Modares University, Tehran, Iran, where he teaches interdisciplinary subjects such as Psycholinguistics and Neurolinguistics. He also serves as the head of the International Relations Office at the Iran National Science Foundation (INSF). Mohammad and his colleagues at INSF are trying to wire together researchers from different countries to develop new interdisciplinary projects. The idea for this blog post was born at the December 2015 Asia-Pacific regional meeting of the Global Research Council in Canberra, Australia.