Fire together, wire together: The role of funding bodies in supporting interdisciplinary research

Community member post by Mohammad Momenian

momenian
Mohammad Momenian (biography)

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.

neurons_dark-valleys

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!

Reference:
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.

6 thoughts on “Fire together, wire together: The role of funding bodies in supporting interdisciplinary research

  1. Thanks Mohammad, networks are important for interdisciplinarity. How funders enable purposeful connections to form across those ‘dark valleys’ and support them in their delivery of excellent and relevant interdisciplinary research is vital. In our recent guidance note, ‘Funding interdisciplinary research: improving practices and processes’ we have summarised wisdom from Gabriele and 35 other leading interdisciplinary researchers http://bit.ly/WT4BO_Funders

  2. Requesting funding bodies to take risks and explore dark valleys is a big ask. Such a statement is not included in a guidance note for funding interdisciplinary research produced at the Working Together for Better Outcomes workshop and published just a few days ago. However, when we suggest funders should “Consider funding large-scale programmes, as these rather than projects are more likely to open space for interdisciplinary work” or “allow multiple approaches to interdisciplinarity” these might be seen as taking a risk by some funders.
    Funding bodies are accountable for the money they spend, but accounting for funding “collaborative ‘glue’ processes including meetings, travel and time to build the team and to understand each other’s languages and objectives” is difficult. Such activities don’t have immediate outputs, even if their usefulness is emphasised widely across the literature.

    • Katrin Prager’s comment considered that “accounting for funding “collaborative ‘glue’ processes including meetings, travel and time to build the team and to understand each other’s languages and objectives” is difficult”. This also constitutes an issue in interdisciplinary funding in Latin America.

      Catherine Lyall et al. (2011, chapter 3) have a nice example of ‘glue’ funding in their book “Interdisciplinary Research Journeys“. Using this as an input, Espacio Interdisciplinario (Universidad de la República, Uruguay) developed, in 2014, a call for “interdisciplinary seed projects”. The idea was to fund the process of “building” an interdisciplinary group and developing a proposal.

      Espacio Interdisciplinario decided to fund eight projects during 2015. All of them were centred on a creative and original idea and looked to contacting other experts in the region and outside the continent. A new housing model, how to prevent suicide in the youngest generations and a network for biosecurity were some of the interesting approaches funded. The relevant aspect was that almost all the seminars or academic meetings organized by these groups, were opened to a broad public.

      Mohammad Momenian considered “the need for new wirings between the fields to save our world”. In a sense, these kind of calls help “pollinate” interdisciplinary efforts.

    • Adding to the difficulty of funding ‘glue’ processes mentioned by Katrin, I would like to add another fundamental problem which is related to the higher order policies of the countries. Sometimes, glue processes such as holding workshops where scientists sit together and discuss how they can do joint interdisciplinary projects are funded by the relevant bodies, but when interdisciplinary projects are born out of these workshops they are not appropriately treated for funding. Why? Since they are not consistent with the policies of the country. In some countries, including where I live now, supporting projects in biotechnology and nanotechnology is explicitly stated in the policies, so they get the lion’s share. But, those which are not appropriately addressed in the higher order policies and documents of the countries such as archeology and arts get almost nothing!
      I think the science policies of countries should not be biased for or against some fields.

  3. Great analogy and story line. I work in the transdisciplinary arena (ag sustainability ) and see similar,yet far less developed issues. My recent findings are related to a new scientific method. ..

  4. Thanks for the useful metaphor, Mohammad. It would also be very interesting to learn from your insights into how interdisciplinarity is faring in Iran – what kinds of projects are being funded?

    Readers may be interested to know that interdisciplinary research is one of the two annual themes chosen by the Global Research Council for an in-depth report, debate and statement between now and mid-2016. The Global Research Council is comprised of the heads of science and engineering funding agencies from around the world.

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