Research councils don't adequately support interdisciplinary research, scientists say

UK scientists working at the interface between chemistry and biology think their research councils don’t adequately support interdisciplinary research, an RSC survey suggests. 

Though research councils have made a ’concerted effort’ to develop new funding routes for multi- and interdisciplinary science, the report says, there is a ’significant communications gap between funders and researchers’. This is despite most of the 446 scientists surveyed having benefited from research council funding at the chemistry-biology interface.

’Because of the way the councils have developed over the years, they are pretty fragmented around this area,’ says chemist Nick Westwood of the University of St Andrews, who chaired the report’s steering group. But Nigel Brown, director of science and technology at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), points out that the BBSRC, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), and the Medical Research Council (MRC) have invested ?260 million to date into the chemistry-biology interface, including specific programmes to encourage interface grant applications, and cross-council agreements to ensure that applications do not fall between funders. But ’we probably can do more on the communication side,’ he admits.

The report - titled Face to face  - suggests that although many institutions are helping chemists and biologists to work together, some are still focusing on the traditional single disciplines. This may in part be a consequence of fitting in with the constraints of the research assessment exercise (RAE) which determines university research funding.  

Westwood thinks the community of scientists working between chemistry and biology is ’pretty strong’, but could be improved by better interface training at PhD level. Researchers cited the US as a good example of how to support interface research, where it’s felt chemists and biologists have greater respect for each others’ expertise. ’Take the latest in biofuels research - the UK community just hasn’t adapted to tackle issues such as synthetic biology as quickly as the US. We do have limited funds, but we have to use them more effectively,’ says John McCarthy, of the Manchester Interdisciplinary Bioscience centre.  

Richard Van Noorden