Published on 1 May 2018
Share Tweet  Share

The Meeting of the Ways – on interdisciplinary research

Bringing different ideas and people together in new ways can lead to wonderful new perspectives.

Dame Athene Donald, Professor of Experimental Physics, Master, Churchill College

There are many reasons why people believe – as I do – that interdisciplinarity has to sit at the heart of any research agenda.

It does not require that two disciplines bring cutting edge tools and ideas together to create something that is yet more cutting edge. In my experience it rarely works like that. It can sometimes mean that techniques familiar and routine in one field freshly applied to some totally different area provide new insight, or it can be that two approaches come together to yield the unexpected. Or…..there are so many ways that interdisciplinarity can open up new directions. As Chair of the REF Interdisciplinary Advisory Panel I hope we have been able to come up with criteria that can be applied wherever it is appropriate and that it will encourage the community to submit a wide range of outputs to the process. Time will tell.

For me in my research, one of the things that most fires me up is seeing connections between disparate topics (whether they cross disciplines or not), joining the dots in novel ways and drawing out insight by asking an old question in a new situation. This, I suppose, is the way my curiosity manifests itself. Last week I noted some striking examples of parallels from ostensibly different areas of research when I attended the launch of the new Bennett Institute for Public Policy. (Indeed, strictly I hosted this event at Churchill College). The day consisted of a series of panel discussions considering important current policy problems from different perspectives.

Listening to Princeton’s Eldar Shafir talk about poverty and inequality I was struck by his remarks about the importance of context on people’s cognitive ‘bandwidth’: when people were overwhelmed by financial stress their ability to perform on other tasks was reduced.  He had demonstrated this via a series of experiments, including inducing thoughts about the state of the individual’s finances prior to carrying out cognitive tests. The results showed anxiety led to an impaired response.  As a consequence, poor people may end up being assessed as stupid, because this cognitive impairment means their performance falls below what it might be in more favourable situations. His interpretation was further supported by tests on Indian farmers carried out throughout the year, who scored more highly in tests after the harvest was in, when they were less concerned about their monetary situation, than earlier in the crop cycle.

Listening to this, it seems to relate closely in its manifestation to what, in a very different context, would be called stereotype threat. Remind test candidates that they are female before a maths test and they will do less well than in a less stereotypically-challenged situation; or tell white athletes about to run a sprint that they are white – and blacks are the good sprinters  – and their times increase; or remind black students of their ethnicity and they underperform in academic tests. I wrote about these examples before and they are thoroughly covered in the book Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele, the originator of the concept of stereotype threat. The parallel with introducing the fear of poverty into the mind of a subsistence farmer before testing his skill levels seems evident, but that parallel did not feature in Shafir’s talk. He was approaching a completely different type of social injustice, but cluttering up the brain with fears would appear to be the common thread:  the same underlying mental feature must be manifest. Shafir’s conclusion in this context – and it applies to gender and ethnicity just as much – is that the additional disadvantage needs to be acknowledged by those seeking to devise strategies to tackle them,  rather than simply saying group A are more stupid than group B!

A second parallel between Shafir’s talk on poverty and inequality with the inequalities of gender lay in the idea of affirmation. In this case his field work was carried out on attendees at inner city soup kitchens. Those who were asked to describe (‘affirm’) situations or actions that made them feel proud did better in tests than those who didn’t make any such statement.  Compare that with a strategy that one study showed reduced the attainment gap in introductory physics classes in the US between men and women, that of ‘values affirmation’. In a double blind test some of the students were asked  to write about their values at the start of the course. Most particularly for women who seemed to believe that men innately will do better in physics than women, this affirmation exercise lead to a grade point benefit. Similarly a Stanford study used values affirmation to benefit black minority students.

So, if these techniques – and explanations – apply across the board, why aren’t they used more? I do wonder, particularly about the self-affirmation approach, whether it might be used routinely to help minorities. The gender and BME (black and minority ethnic) attainment gaps at universities are getting increasing attention. The roots are no doubt myriad and the solutions will likewise be diverse. But if values affirmation works, even if only to a limited extent, there seems little reason not to try it out since it is hard to see what the downside is; the time required is not great. Personally I find it remarkable that something so simple can have a lasting effect, but the evidence seems to be there.

That particular talk by Shafir stood out for me because the parallels with studies I am familiar with from my time as gender equality champion seemed so resonant despite the very different context. But, the whole day of the Bennett Institute launch was fascinating. I look forward to working with the Institute, most particularly in the area of science and policy. Churchill College, along with CSaP and the Institute are starting up an initiative on science and democracy. In part I hope this will help to provide insight for early career researchers about the importance of science in and for policy, but also to explore more widely innovative ways of promoting an understanding of policy questions among scientists.

Bringing different ideas and people together in new ways can lead to wonderful new perspectives. Here’s to interdisciplinarity being seen as just one strand of the researcher’s repertoire and not as some rare beast that needs special REF criteria (although for now it most certainly does); here’s to a future where social scientists and ‘hard’ scientists getting together is totally accepted and not seen, for instance by my physics’ colleagues, as selling out on the real science. And good luck to the Bennett Institute and its future work!

This article first appeared on Athene Donald’s blog.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.


Professor Dame Athene Donald

Professor Dame Athene Donald

Professor Dame Athene Donald is a Professor of Experimental Physics Emerita and Master of Churchill College. Her research is in the general field of soft matter and physics at the...

Back to Top