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The Practice and Politics of Interdisciplinary Training in Genomics - workshop report

May 15 2008

Venue: ESRC Edinburgh Genomics Forum, St Johns Land, Edinburgh University

Organised by:

Dr Sahra Gibbon - University College London and Visiting Research Fellow at the Genomics Forum

A workshop on “The practice and politics of interdisciplinary training in genomics” was organised by Dr Sahra Gibbon of University College London as part of her spell working at the Genomics Forum as a Visiting Fellow. The event was intended to help scientists and social scientists explore how interdisciplinary training in relation to genomic science might be achieved in practice and to identify potential benefits and challenges. The workshop began with the thirty or so participants introducing themselves, a process that revealed the presence of philosophers, sociologists and historians, as well as science communicators and scientists from a variety of disciplines. Sahra Gibbon set the scene for the workshop outlining a series of key questions for the workshop. These included how to define interdisciplinarity and its impact; understanding the need for or motivation to undertake interdisciplinary work and how to evaluate these novel ways of training and learning.

The first presentation by Elena Khlinovskaya Rockhill of the Department of Social Anthropology at Cambridge University was entitled “Cambridge Genetics Knowledge Park and the social life of the concepts; ‘interdisciplinarity’ and ‘ELSI’”. Dr Rockhill described how the relationships between different academic disciplines had evolved within the Park. The Park was one of six similar institutes in England and Wales established by the government to provide a way of ensuring that medical advances based on genetics took place in a context informed by regulatory, ethical and social science perspectives. When the Cambridge Park was established in 2002 its structure was exemplary in its interdisciplinarity with geneticists, epidemiologists, economists, sociologists, philosophers and lawyers all working “under the one roof”. Diagrams summarising the organisational structure of the Park gave equal importance to different disciplines and emphasised their interconnectivity. However, over the next five years the ethical, legal and social aspects (ELSI) became progressively marginalised. Dr Rockhill argued that part of the reason for this was that managers failed to establish clear performance indicators. Without clarity as to whether the work of the Park should be assessed as public service or academic enquiry, the added value contributed by ELSI succumbed to a credibility deficit. Responding to questions, Dr Rockhill suggested that these structural failings were generic rather than specific to the Cambridge Park and reflected a lack of interest from geneticists about the social implications of their work.

The following presentation entitled “‘ELSI’ Training for Scientists” was given by Sarah Wilson, a bioethicist working in the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Science at the University of Central Lancashire. Drawing on her experience teaching bioethics to health professionals, she reported that one of the main obstacles was suspicion about bioethics. It was often viewed as just a hurdle to be cleared before conducting research rather than something worthy of discussion for its own merits. Other difficulties were that debate became bogged down in discussions about the precise meanings of terms, or was hindered by the use of unfamiliar language and a reluctance to accept the validity of qualitative rather than quantitative research. Dr Wilson argued that these obstacles could be addressed by beginning the process of interdisciplinary dialogue much earlier in the education process. The potential benefit of this would be the ability to see topics from new perspectives as well as an inclination to establish connections between disciplines ahead of controversy, instead of in response to it.

These views were amplified by the third speaker, Andrew Moore, Manager for the Science and Society Programme of the European Molecular Biology Organisation in Heidelberg, Germany in a presentation entitled “What you don’t learn at the bench – complementary skills of societal relevance”. His analysis of the views of scientists at different stages of their careers on the relative importance of training in communication revealed that younger scientists gave it significantly greater importance than their elders. Dr Moore suggested that a new generation of scientists might emerge who were more comfortable with the media and who would be able to do a better job of communicating with the public about their scientific research and its general implications for society. His analysis also revealed that neither group-leaders nor young scientists gave much importance to receiving training in bioethics. Like the previous speaker, Dr Moore argued that scientists should receive interdisciplinary training at an early stage in their careers, and he described examples from elsewhere in Europe where this was already happening.

The final presentation, from the workshop organiser Sahra Gibbon, described an experiment in interdisciplinary training recently carried out at University College London at the Institute of Human Genetics and Health. This novel programme involved four students, two science students and two social science students , all beginning a PhD in genetics. The science students undertook courses in the humanities and social sciences and the social science students undertook training in laboratory environments.

The medium of a documentary film, made by Dr Gibbon during the first year of the programme, enabled the experience of the students to be recorded and provided a tool for examining what it meant to become interdisciplinary in this context. The sections screened at the workshop focused on the experience of the science students as they alternately performed laboratory research, attended social science seminars and discussed with their social science student peers the ethical and regulatory issues surrounding genetic databases and topical social science debates around geneticisation, as well as issues of genetic determinism and reductionism. The science students, who were also participants in the workshop, commented that they initially had difficulty understanding the language of the social sciences but that their involvement in the experiment had given them a greater appreciation of different views about the methods and results of scientific and social science research.

A final discussion session began with comments from Nanneke Redclift, Professor of Social Anthropology at University College London, who observed that interdisciplinarity was made all the more difficult in an era of increasing specialism within fields. Allied to this was the suspicious attitude of funding bodies, and the conservatism of age; Professor Redclift speculated that the next generation of academics might be able to cross academic boundaries with more freedom. She also made the point that the full impact and hence evaluation of interdisciplinary initiatives may have to be done over a much longer period with the positive benefits of novel forms of cross-disciplinary training and learning emerging in the longer term.

Next, Lindsay Sawyer, Professor in Structural Biochemistry at the School of Biological Sciences at Edinburgh University, spoke about the work he had been undertaking providing bioethics teaching for life scientists as part of an established programme at Edinburgh University. He talked about the value of using different methods for undertaking such teaching, including informal reading group environments.

There was some concluding discussion of what was described as the challenge of ‘asymmetry’ in undertaking interdisciplinary work. That is how to overcome the imbalance between social science interest and willingness to engage in interdisciplinary work, sometimes in part as a research exercise, which contrasted with scientists’ general reluctance to participate, partly as a result of not having a ‘research’ investment in doing so. Returning to the issue of evaluation, further important points were made about the need to value the process of interdisciplinary discussions, learning and teaching in itself rather than judge success or failure on concrete outputs. Although it was suggested that such interactivity and exchange was easier to generate around specific problems and tasks.

In summary the day ended with a positive sense that although there are on-going obstacles to undertaking interdisciplinary research, teaching and learning, particularly in the field of genomics, a clearer understanding of the nature of those challenges and some strategies to overcome them had emerged. Finally, although the impacts of such initiatives might not be easily discernible, there was also a sense that constructive inroads had already been made in this area, with positive benefits for future collaborative and cross disciplinary ways of working.,3468,en.t4.html