Let me continue last week’s reflection on the need for knowledge-integrating institutions. Maybe we could quickly agree that bridging the 10-90 gap requires all hands on deck, hands which join forces, insights, knowledge, thoughts. But if a central interfaculty did not really work 40 years ago, why would it work now? To mention just a few obstacles: many philosophers back then thought that this whole idea made philosophy too “scientistic”, while at the same time there was hardly enough interest from the side of the sciences. These problems have not vanished, I suspect.
When the aim is to overcome the 10-90 gap, central interfaculties have an even more serious flaw, one which they share with “slow science” (see post # 9). What would make us expect that central interfaculties are going to help? A broad academic education may be desirable, integrating knowledges may be necessary, but these things are not enough: they are not in themselves drawing attention to the 10-90 gap.
For targeted interdisciplinary approaches, maybe we should look at other and newer institutions: platforms, funds, foundations, networks, institutes, taskforces, schools, consortia…?
Take consortia, they are blossoming. In 2007, the NIH announced that they were going to fund nine interdisciplinary research consortia “as a means of integrating aspects of different disciplines to address health challenges that have been resistant to traditional research approaches.” They characterized the initiative as a fundamental transformation of the mono-institutional research culture, meatn to encourage unconventional collaboration. The consortia were each directed at a specific problem area. For example, one was to address neurotherapeutics, another problems of aging, etcetera.
So what about a Dutch, or European, Research Consortium for overcoming the 10-90 gap? A consortium that would take up all the challenges and developments that I am constantly overwhelmed by, and much more? Shall I spend the rest of this project to prepare a European proposal?
Or take foundations. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation illustrates how narrow approaches can be overcome through interdisciplinarity. In his recent lecture in honour of Norman Borlaug, the father of the green revolution, Bill Gates announced that he wanted to overcome former onesidenesses, in particular the split between technological and environmental approaches in the struggle against hunger. The choice between productivity and sustainability is a false one, he said. Technology is needed, but at the same time “we try to see our investments through the eyes of small farmers. Will they lead to a better yield, better soil, a better living, a better income?”
Social scientists and funders are not exempted from the narrownesses and blind spots that may be remedied through broad collaboration. In the course of their struggle against technofixes, they have come to develop a fixation of their own: on participatory development. Bart Knols, in the blog that is now part of his new malaria platform (another form interdisciplinary initatives can take), stumbled upon this particular narrowness a while ago. Knols is firmly convinced that history teaches us that malaria cannot be eliminated through a participatory approach; it requires a hierarchical, military-like organization. The historical hero here is Fred Soper, who in the nineteenthirties accomplished the impossible-seeming task to eliminate an African malaria mosquito from Brazil, where it had invaded an area of 54,000 square kilometers, in just 18 months. Soper’s approach, through “motivation, discipline, organization and zeal” is honoured by Malcolm Gladwell in an article of 2001, The Mosquito Killer. I have not yet seen Bart Knols’ new book Mug (Mosquito), but I am certain that it also honours Fred Soper. At his blog, meanwhile, he mentions a confrontation with someone from a funding organization: “Yesterday, a young chap from a major Dutch funding organisation wanted to know why military style campaigns that were so successful in the past were not being undertaken at present. I lost his sympathy when I mentioned ‘Sorry, but it is organisations like yours that force us to set up programmes based on community participation, otherwise we will not get funded’.
You get the point: the self-evident truths of specialists of all backgrounds deserve a wider perspective. Knols’ point touches on a wider issue, a widespread allergy for authority, which deserves more attention… The issues keep multiplying, while the issue of suitable institutions still remains wide open. I will return to the multitude of targeted initiatives and institutional forms, and the issues of “governance” raised by them.