Stepping over boundary lines
Boundaries traditionally applied to science are holding us back when it comes to solving big problems… we should embrace interdisciplinary approaches says Dr Megan Wheeler...
Anti-microbial resistance. Climate change. Food insecurity. An aging population. Species extinction. The crises that face our planet and our society are broad, deep, and multi-faceted. They recognise none of the neat boundaries that we traditionally apply to science. They do not conform to the way we currently organize our universities and institutes.
Neither does the boundless potential of science.
Realising the promise that science offers to solve the world’s most pressing problems demands that scientists work across disciplines and the self-constructed definitions we have too-often applied to their work. To accelerate discovery and drive impact we need to move beyond collaboration between scientists and teams to the creation of genuinely interdisciplinary scientific groups. The best scientists should draw insights from across numerous disciplines, be able to apply new techniques, and possess a broad world-view informed by the intersections between science and society.
If we agree that the role of scientists is to further the frontiers of knowledge in order to drive benefits for society and we know that the problems society faces are not discipline-specific, then we have to question why we persist in training scientists in disciplinary silos. Some areas of science are already embracing interdisciplinarity, but the necessary culture shift is not consistent or quick enough. The evolution of scientific training has not kept pace. Interdisciplinarity needs to be championed and new ways to foster and support interdisciplinary leaders are required.
At its core, this is what the Schmidt Science Fellows program aims to do. Created through a partnership between Schmidt Futures
and the Rhodes Trust
, our mission is to develop the next generation of science leaders to transcend disciplines, advance discovery, and solve the world’s most pressing problems.
We are seeking to provide the world’s best emerging scientists with new skills and perspectives to develop novel solutions to society’s challenges, become scientific and societal thought leaders, and unlock new scientific breakthroughs faster. Uniquely, our fellowship takes intellectually outstanding individuals, fresh from their PhDs, and pivots their scientific training into a new disciplinary area.
We do not prescribe what science our Fellows do or where they do it, but we help them to undertake a year pursuing a cutting-edge project in a world-leading laboratory specializing in a different discipline to their PhD. By doing this, they are exposed to new ideas and different ways of framing problems, and have the chance to strengthen their ability to speak the scientific languages of multiple disciplines.
We support Fellows to synthesize the new ideas they gain from their Fellowship field back into their original discipline. We want to drive a shift in thinking where scientists are supported to actively unite disciplines to accelerate discoveries.
Yet, we are acutely aware that shifting the culture of science towards genuine interdisciplinarity will not be realised through one fellowship program alone. We believe the Schmidt Science Fellows can be at the forefront of change, but we seek the support, engagement, and partnership from across the scientific community.
As we launched our inaugural year of the program, we have been heartened to see how many people are active supporters of our aims. Schmidt Science Fellows relies on institutions and faculty nominating their exemplary PhD students as candidates, on leading researchers and innovators participating in our selection panels, and on research group leaders with an affinity to the program’s aims to host Fellows in their labs.
We want to broaden this engagement and to work across the scientific community. We look forward to working with scientists from across the globe, with other training programs, institutions, and academies to understand and explore what is needed to encourage and reward the interdisciplinarity that we believe will unlock discoveries and impact faster.
Dr Megan Wheeler is Executive Director of Schmidt Science Fellows. www.schmidtsciencefellows.org