Navigating Interdisciplinarity

Navigating Interdisciplinarity, Wellcome Trust 75 Event, University of Dundee Life Sciences and Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art (2011)


The extraordinary potential of interdisciplinary practice often meets bureaucratic obstacles. Enumerating them — and working strategically to eliminate them — is part of the essential groundwork to be done in order to build productive, practical methodological bridges across the arts, the humanities and the sciences. The responsibility of universities to fully support the researchers they engage, and to enable the knowledge that they produce to be truly effective, will of necessity involve a sea-change in the way both universities and research are structured and funded.

That sounds like a very tall order, but it is one that is coming from all sides: this event was co-organised by artists and life scientists. The University of Dundee is big enough to have both an art college and a life sciences department which are both known internationally, and yet small enough that there is real exchange, with respect and cameraderie, between researchers in both fields. With the support of the Wellcome Trust, their exchange projects — from printmaking, visualisation and data-modeling to architectural collaboration and the promise of a shared gallery/research space — are going to lead somewhere very interesting indeed.

University of Dundee is not alone in initiating plans to support interdisciplinarity with real infrastructure. I have also been invited to lecture on this topic at York University in Toronto, which prides itself as having been founded 50 years ago on the very premise of interdisciplinary research. In February 2011, representing the Centre for Arts and Humanities Research at the Natural History Museum, I addressed a number of the same issues in a lecture at Yale’s Peabody Museum. Later that year many of these points came up again at a closed international workshop in which I participated, convened by New York University and hosted by the British Museum — Re:Enlightenment Project.

Navigating Interdisciplinarity draws together knowledge and observations from my interdisciplinary work and experience at science institutions such as the Faculty of Health of University of Copenhagen, the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge, the Science Department of the Natural History Museum, and art-science crossovers with the Wellcome Trust.

What then are some of the problems, and what is to be done? Here is an excerpt from my presentation at Dundee’s Shared Imagination event:

Everyone on an interdisciplinary team will have widely differing skills and methods that are in large degree opaque to the other members of the team. Very fundamental project activities and scheduling issues will not even be tabled for discussion at the project’s outset because they are so deeply embedded as to be invisible. This can lead to uneven expectations of each other, bad project management and schedule planning, limited knowledge exchange, projects which do not fulfil their full potential, frustration, anger, disillusionment.

Another challenge has to do with the uneven playing field between art and science in financial terms and in economic models. Even a life sciences lab that is underfunded is actually funded at levels of a much higher magnitude than that of the fine arts — including film and media.

Underinvestment in the project of culture and aesthetics has led to uneven development between the arts and the sciences. This has also forced huge differences in the basic economic models: science does not now start up its research activities without front-end investment, and art often only sees a return on its necessarily speculative investment at the end of its research, when there is a product.

This can mean that it is difficult to align resources in relation to cash flow, as well as to effect fundraising, across varying disciplines. In Universities, budgeting across departments, both for costs and the recovery of overheads, can be very difficult. Managing the sharing of limited resources such as technologies and admin support as well as other infrastructure, is complex across a campus. And yet waste occurs in silos; ineffective communication means shared interests are rarely identified.

For real breakthroughs, it is agreed that joint appointments are essential, and yet nigh on impossible to effect. When they are instated, it often means two full time jobs for the incumbent, whose work then falls between two stools, because REF-based management of research is divided along disciplinary units of assessment and not along the lines of the larger-scale ‘big questions’ that need to be addressed. This means a loss of identity and value both for the institution and the individual.

A further problem comes from the fact that with infrastructure comes bureaucracy. Science often labours under highly competitive conditions and almost unbearable scrutiny. It would surprise artists to know how difficult it is for scientists to access meaningful larger-scale resources and instruments. Detector time on X-Ray telescopes is lined up years in advance and is based on applications and peer judging that is incredibly exacting. If it is not easy to share this kind of infrastructural resource even within a discipline, how much more difficult to carve out the time for something experimental across boundaries, with little funding behind it and unpredictable outcomes?


There is much more to be said about how to overcome these problems, pragmatically and strategically. I was able to outline a few approaches that were specific to Dundee in the lecture and also in the ensuing day workshop. By way of inspiration, Navigating Interdisciplinarity ends with a quote from Hermes/The Northwest Passage by Michel Serres:

“It is the link between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, through the Great Canadian North. It opens, closes, and twists all through the immense arctic archipelago, all along a wildly complicated maze of gulfs and channels, of basins and straights, between the islands of Banks and Baffin. One enters it by the Davis straight and one ends up in the Beaufort Sea. The voyage is arduous, the openings rare and often blocked.” says Serres.

“It is a difficult trajectory, hampered with encumbrances, a true labyrinth of earth, water and ice. The very image of the crossing between the exact sciences and the human sciences. And it is not a path that is given once and for all, but must be built and discovered each time it is attempted. One wants to go everywhere, build a world where there is almost everything – mathematics, biology, philosophy, painting. The North-West passage is, in the end, the project of one’s entire life.”


This lecture has been videocast by DJCAD Exhibitions on their YouTube Channel.

Further Links: Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art Exhibitions (Curator Sophia Hao); University of Dundee Life Sciences (Dean of Research Professor Mike Ferguson)

[Image References: Chart of the Northwest Passage; coast guard icebreaker the Polar Sea in Arctic waters, United States Coast Guard; Martha Fleming speaking at Shared Imagination, Dundee; powerpoint slide from Navigating Interdisciplinarity lecture]