Interdisciplinary and ignorance

In which I wrestle with the benefits of admitting ignorance and asking questions.

I’m moving back into research. That’s both exciting, and more than a little scary.

For the last few years I’ve been helping Cambridge Univesity collect, organise and use it’s research information. I helped assemble the Outputs element of our REF return. Which seemed to go pretty well. During that time I’ve done some bits of research, but it’s been very much a sideline: looking to understand the contribution of QR funding; and thinking about how COVID-19 vaccine research happened so quickly. Now I’m joining LIz Simmonds to run a new project looking at how to improve Research Culture.

Like much of what I’ve done before it’s very pragmatic research that aims to make a difference. It’s multi-method and will hopefully be interdisciplinary. It involves doing things I’ve never done before. And going back to things I haven’t done in a while - like running a research group. And when you’re project is about improving research culture that only adds to the pressure.

Which makes it all the harder to admit that there are lots of things I don’t know and need to learn. But it’s true. I like to think it’s true of much worthwhile research. The model I see most often in academia is to build deep expertise and then (sometimes) broaden. That means there’s always somewhere safe to return to where you’re the acknowledged expert. I’m not like that. I’ve developed my research skills from a PhD in cell biology through a decade or so of policy research - learning (and sometimes developing) methods and approaches to get appropriately robust answers. The upside is I know a lot about different approaches and bringing them together. The downside is I don’t really have a home - there’s no pinnacle of expertise I can retreat to when there’s a battle of intellectual one-upmanship. I don’t have an academic tribe to return to.

It can be lonely being diverse.

It also means I can see the benefits of using multiple methods and different disciplinary approaches; and I’m used to drawing on others’ expertise to put it all into practice, to ensure we get the best answers we can.

So I’ll be asking lots of questions and seeking lots of advice. In fact I’ve already started. But it will be more public now. I’ve learned huge amounts from those who’ve answered my questions and contributed their ideas (thanks!). And from the posts and Stack Exchange answers to others who were willing to admit the ignorance they wished to remove. Hopefully my questions, on everything from how to delineate culture, to statistics via how best to hold group meetings; and answers we find, will help others.

And who knows, maybe it will start to feel more comfortable.

Steven Wooding
Steven Wooding
Head of Research on Research - Research Strategy Office Affiliated Researcher - Bennett Institute for Public Policy

My research interests include research culture; funding policy; the social mechanisms of science; data and concept visualisation; and Bayesian statistics (and all sorts of other random stuff, of which this blog is largely composed).