Putting 'uni' back in university

Prof Tom McLeish is a theoretical physicist and the first chair of natural philosophy at the University of York. His work is renowned for improving our understanding of the properties of soft matter, such as liquids, foams and biological materials. His Discovery public lecture in May 2017, Faith and Wisdom in Science, was based on his eponymous book. Prof McLeish is both a scientist and a lay reader in the Anglican church and the book explores how, contrary to popular belief, science and religion are “utterly compatible”. 

Here at UCD Institute for Discovery our mission is to support interdisciplinary research - and Prof Tom McLeish shares that passion. 

Among his many achievements is cofounding the Ordered Universe project whose 150 scholars - with backgrounds in science, social science and humanities - take a fresh look at medieval discoveries.

“Interdisciplinary research is my life,” he said, in an interview with Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin of UCD School of Mathematics and Statistics. 

“I’m a physicist and I’m very happy to be a physicist but I’ve always been academically promiscuous! I love doing physics with historians and chemists and biologists and enjoying the academic landscape and putting the ‘uni’ back into ‘university’.”

He complains that for “the last hundred years or so” our disciplines have been very fragmented. 

“Everybody knows their subject and the walls between them are really high… This hasn’t always been so. You have to go back to the early nineteenth century to find a much more polymathematical approach.”

He gives the example of poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge who did science experiments with his friend Humphrey Davy - and helped the chemist to write poetry too. 

Meanwhile Prussian polymath Alexander von Humboldt, born in 1769, was feted as both a scientist and a philosopher.

“And so trying to rediscover that world and its value for our current world is really important,” emphasises Prof McLeish. “Because the other thing one can say about interdisciplinary research is that there is no important global challenge that can be answered from within a single discipline, whether it’s water shortage or global energy or reconciliation and peace or climate change - you could go on and on. You can see that for each of those there are several disciplines that contribute but the solution, and the challenge, is in bringing everybody together.”

Seeing the benefit of collaborating with colleagues across a spectrum of disciplines “is a lesson you only really learn with experience”. But Prof McLeish says that once its merits are felt, academics have “caught the bug” and continued to cross-pollinate ideas. 

“This is where universities can make a huge difference, by going out of their way to communicate the value they put on thinking about things in interdisciplinary ways. That can mean resourcing properly, that can mean rewarding people appropriately, a constructive attitude from senior leadership, or sometimes even small things - academics will do an awful lot for a free sandwich!”

One of the “great joys” of interdisciplinary research, he says, is “to realise that there are no stupid questions. We are all learners”.  

But one of the “big obstacles” is funders being less sure how to evaluate research proposals.

“We call it the problem of the 'elephant in the peer reviewers’ room' because it’s so akin to the old Indian parable of the six blind people who are asked what’s in front of them. It’s an elephant but one person thinks it’s four tree trunks, one person thinks there’s a dangling rope and one person thinks it's two enormous palm leaves. No one can see the whole elephant. 

“For me rule number one in evaluating interdisciplinary research is: have these people achieved - or are they proposing with good plans to achieve - a totality which is bigger than the sum of its parts. Has it really integrated?”

He advises having a text, material object or central question that everyone explores. 

“But we’re looking at it from different directions. That anchors us, anchors our gaze in a single point. But then what emerges over time is a completely fresh, holistic, integrated view.”


Listen to the full interview here