Correcting the bias against interdisciplinary research

A comment written by Ehud Shapiro in eLIFE, 1 April 2014.

When making decisions about funding and jobs the scientific community should recognise that most of the tools used to evaluate scientific excellence are biased in favour of established disciplines and against interdisciplinary research.

Many people have their abilities and achievements evaluated throughout their lives: this can be done via exam results for students, via salary and job title in the workplace, or via world rankings and earnings for individual sportsmen and women. Scientists too have their abilities and achievements scrutinised on a regular basis when they apply for jobs or promotion, or when they submit grant applications and manuscripts to funding agencies and journals. Identifying excellence is relatively straightforward in the highly structured worlds of, say, education or tennis. However, evaluating excellence in scientific research is difficult, and the scientific community is constantly struggling to improve the ways it measures and rewards excellence.

A case in point is evaluating excellence in interdisciplinary research. By that I specifically mean research that aims to integrate two (or more) existing disciplines. My own research involves applying various tools and methods from computer science to problems in biology. However, the views expressed here apply equally to, say, physicists thinking about gene expression, mathematicians modelling bacterial colonies, and to any other research that lies at the perimeters of the well-established disciplines. The difficulties associated with recognising excellence in interdisciplinary research have an unfortunate side effect: scientists who leave the safe haven of their home discipline to explore the uncharted territory that lies outside and between established disciplines are often punished rather than rewarded for following their scientific curiosity.

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