"Science is Sciencing"

Jan 18, 2019

The title for this post is stolen from a 1938 essay by the anthropologist Leslie A. White.  The essay - a reflection on the complex, interconnected phenomena that science attempts to interpret, and the resulting need for traditional artificial barriers between disciplines to be ignored - opens like this:

  "Science is not merely a collection of facts and formulas.  It is preeminently a way of dealing with experience. The word may appropriately be used as a verb: one sciences, i.e. deals with experience according to certain assumptions and with certain techniques.

White's objective in writing the essay was to argue the case that culture, and cultural evolution, were amenable to study using scientific methodology and should be considered in that light.  I don't think that view would be seen as controversial these days, but in making his argument in the late 1930's White pointed out that one of the factors holding some subjects back from being considered as legitimate sciences, was a tendency for academia to divide itself along functional lines into labeled disciplines. He used a pleasingly (from the perspective of a blog hosted at a Land Grant university) agricultural metaphor:

  "The custom of viewing 'science' as a vast terrain divided into a number of 'fields' each tilled by its own appropriately named guild of experts has a certain justification in utility and convenience. But it tends to obscure the nature of science as a way of interpreting reality, to spread confusion in the ranks of scientists and laymen alike."

The issue for science isn't so much that it's bad for there to be separate disciplines tilling the fertile ground of their own fields of knowledge, but that the terrain of science managed in that way, doesn't map well onto the terrain of real-world problems that need to be addressed; particularly the global problems and grand challenges confronting us.  In nearly 30 years of research and extension work in the UK and USA, in agricultural sustainability and plant disease epidemiology, I have encountered few cases where single disciplines were able to provide answers to large-scale complex problems being faced by land managers, farmers, and policy makers.

A common theme in discussions of interdisciplinary science is that while the concept is supported, even encouraged, by institutions and funders, actual support is less in evidence; people who pursue interdisciplinary careers are often thought to suffer negative impacts on productivity and career advancement.  A recent study of 900 US academics in research centers, involving 32,000 publications indicated that there are both wins and losses associated with being more interdisciplinary:  publication rate was negatively correlated with interdisciplinarity, but prestige was positively correlated.

Whatever the pros and cons of working in an interdisciplinary way, my own decision to pursue the approach isn't based on an instrumental effort to shape a career. It happened partly because that was the ethos of my mentors at the Edinburgh School of Agriculture in the 1980's,  partly as a result of observing that the sorts of problems I want to solve don't yield to one-dimensional responses, and because I can't imagine a more enjoyable way to put science to work.

I decided to start this blog to record some of the ways in which we use interdisciplinary approaches to help solve problems faced by our stakeholders, but also as a means to offer some commentary on interdisciplinarity itself.  The title of the blog is borrowed from Steinbeck, who used the expression Long narrow swale to refer to the Salinas Valley.  It's an area of California that I'm very attached to since my first research and extension project for UC was focused there, working with the salad industry to understand annual epidemics of downy mildew.  Recently my trips there are more likely to be associated with virus problems in grapes or in helping the lemon growers work out how to deal with regulations needed to slow the spread of the Asian Citrus Psyllid, and the deadly bacterial disease it carries, than to visit spinach fields.  However, in stealing Steinbeck's phrase for my blog's title I wasn't thinking so much of physical valleys, but more the long narrow swales of disciplinary specialization we can find ourselves following. My intention is to follow somewhat in White's footsteps and talk about what life is like when one takes off up the side of one's academic home valley to find out what's going on on the other side of the hill.

By Neil McRoberts
Author - Professor