Monday, November 27, 2017

My Disciplinary Box: Unleash Me!

In 20 years of wrestling with the Canadian funding system, nothing has frustrated me more than being forced to squeeze my round interdisciplinary derrière into a square disciplinary box. “What are you?” people ask, “A natural scientist or a social scientist?” I reply, now proudly: “I’m an interdisciplinary mutt.”
Canada, it's time to enable important insight- and solutions-oriented research: legitimize interdisciplinary identities with a revamping of Canada’s funding councils.
It's frustrating to be binned into one category or another for funding
purposes, when the truth is something in between--a reality that deserves
its own recognition and celebration.
After over 12 years as a faculty member at UBC, it was inspiring to see the parade of accomplished scholars among my fellow new members of the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists. As we stood up to introduce each other, we were asked to find connections; I was buoyed by the many people who found themselves--as I do--sitting between disciplinary boxes. Despite having succeeded in navigating the system, though, many of the folks I talked to had stories like me of having been forced to try to fit a disciplinary box to obtain the funding needed for their research programs (e.g., Elena Bennett, Joule Bergerson).
I’ve got lots of stories of stifling disciplinary boxes, but most existential of all is the fear of being judged ‘not natural science-y’ enough or ‘not social’ enough. One of my colleagues, Tim McDaniels was judged ‘not NSERC material’ when he was principal investigator (PI) of a major international project funded by the Belmont Forum. We got the grant but NSERC refused to fund him. On the flip side, I just had the criticism that an NSERC project I proposed to lead (in one of the few programs that invites interdisciplinary research involving social sciences and humanities) didn’t have the needed social science expertise on the team.
Now, it’s true that we almost certainly would have included another social scientist colleague somewhat in the project, serving as a committee member or even co-supervisor for some of the students. And it could have been good to include that person early.
On the other hand, I have supervised students doing interviews and surveys with farmers about values, motivations, and behaviours--precisely the work we had proposed. I have served as PI for at least three grants to fund such work. But this expertise received little emphasis in my brief-format CV, as I strived to demonstrate that I was sufficiently grounded in the natural sciences to lead a major NSERC grant.
Canada is currently in the midst of reconsidering its approach to research funding, as the Canadian
Canada's Fundamental Science Review is
blunt but brilliant about several strengths
and weaknesses of Canadian science. But
it is entirely silent about interdisciplinarity.
government decides what to implement from its Fundamental Science Review. The report makes excellent points about the crucial importance of investigator-led research. Unfortunately, it is entirely silent about interdisciplinarity. It addresses multidisciplinary research,
but that’s not the same thing. Whereas multidisciplinary research involves multiple threads, each stemming from a different discipline, interdisciplinary research braids together methods and theories from multiple disciplines in order to answer questions that extend beyond the reach of any single one. I generally combine social and ecological research, ditto for Elena Bennett. For Sarah de Leeuw, it’s the arts and health of Indigenous peoples; for Frank Gu, it’s health and nanotechnology engineering; for Joule Bergerson and Jan Franklin Adamowski, it’s engineering and social sciences; for Catherine Beauchemin, it’s virology and physics. By my count, at least 12 of the 72 (1 in 6) new members of the college were interdisciplinary across our three disciplinary funding councils (and many more were interdisciplinary within).
How have you been hemmed in to a disciplinary box? How has this impeded your ability to follow your passions, or to solve crucial societal problems? Tell us below, in the comments, or tell your story on social media using #disciplinarybox.

P.S. Thanks to Elena Bennett for the “disciplinary box” term, and for editing this!
P.P.S. Canadians, please also use #Canada to enable us to send a clear message to Canadian policymakers, including Honourable Minister of Science, Kirsty Duncan (her own research combined archaeology and virology!).


  1. Many thanks for raising this pertinent issue. I wonder why smart people in charge of these decisions can't see that many problems in this world require interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary approaches. Maybe incentivizing researchers to work across domains is a baby step forward.

  2. I'm with you. Even within NSERC the categories are too disciplinary. My science work doesn't fit well within any of their narrow 1970s categories.