Cross-disciplinary research is essential. Chris St Pourçain explores the funding problems and ways to increase the number of applications

The double helical structure of DNA has become an instantly recognisable symbol for the biological sciences. The impact this structure has had on all areas of biology has been extraordinary, yet it is important to remember that input from physical scientists was crucial to its determination. Only James Watson had a background in biology; Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins were physicists and Rosalind Franklin was a physical chemist.

This example is a useful reminder of the impact research across disciplines can have and, in particular, of the contribution non-biologists can make to biological problems. The involvement of physical scientists at the interface with the biological sciences is now more important than ever. Biological science is becoming less descriptive and more quantitative, a trend identified by the BBSRC in its 10 year vision in 2003.

The need for more physical scientists, engineers, and mathematicians working on biological problems is clear, but encouraging them to become involved is more of a problem. The 2004 Royal Society report @ the interface identified a number of difficulties for researchers who cross disciplines. These include a greater element of risk in cross-disciplinary research, lack of preliminary data, and complexities in appraising cross-disciplinary grant applications. Those submitting such applications need to be confident that their application has been assessed fairly, by people with the appropriate expertise. These considerations must be taken into account when providing funding mechanisms to support cross-disciplinary collaborations in their early stages and their eventual transfer to long term funding.

Responsive mode is the BBSRC’s key mechanism for long term support. Reassuringly, success rates for cross-disciplinary applications (with collaboration between bioscience and non-bioscience departments) are similar to those involving only bioscience departments. However, success rates for non-bioscientists applying alone are rather lower. But how can the number of cross-disciplinary applications to responsive mode be increased?

Focusing on specific areas through cross-disciplinary initiatives is a good way to generate activity, but does not provide long term support. Recent successful cross-disciplinary BBSRC initiatives have included bioinformatics, exploiting genomics, and most recently selective chemical intervention in biological systems (SCIBS); 75 per cent of SCIBS grants involved a chemistry department. Also, the recently launched technology development research initiative actively encourages the involvement of physical scientists, engineers, and mathematicians.

But this still leaves the problem of how research collaborations across disciplines can be encouraged in the first place. The BBSRC provides support through the discipline hopping awards scheme, in partnership with the MRC and EPSRC, and a new tools and resources development fund to pump-prime the development of new technologies for the biosciences, and the adaptation of those used in other disciplines to biology.

One obvious problem is simply that researchers from different research communities are often unlikely to meet each other, so they remain ignorant of the problems and solutions each other have. Even if brought together in workshops to discuss areas of common interest, collaborations are unlikely to be successful unless funds are available to support projects in their early stages.

To tackle these problems the BBSRC is experimenting with brokering meetings in targeted areas, supported by a small grants scheme. The scheme funds initial collaborations arising directly from the brokering meeting, allowing preliminary results to be generated that will hopefully form the basis of more substantial applications to responsive mode.

However, we are unlikely to know for at least three years if these BBSRC schemes lead to more cross-disciplinary responsive mode grants.

Progress in the biological sciences has been remarkable and will continue to have a profound impact on science, society and industry. But this progress is increasingly dependent on the involvement of physical scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. So, we should remember the example of DNA and that biology is not just for biologists.

Chris St Pourçain is programme manager for cross-disciplinary research, BBSRC