This is a neat encapsulation of the argument for interdisciplinary working. A similar line of argument was followed by Prof Rick Rylance, CEO of the AHRC, when he visited the University a couple of weeks back. However, Rylance was frank in his acceptance of the problems that those working in the disciplinary borderlands face. He gave an example from his own work: he's an English scholar by trade, and has worked with a neuroscientist to analyse brain patterns when people read poetry. Interesting stuff, but they had problems getting it published: humanities journals that thought that it was too scientific, and science journals that thought it was a bit too 'kooky.'
I think this won't be solved until the silos that Harford talks about are permanently dismantled, and that's not going to happen any time soon. Part of the problem is the REF (it's becoming a bit of theme today, isn't it?) which reinforces a need to focus strictly on comparing yourself with others in a narrowly defined field. If and when the silos do tumble, there's still the problem of identifying early which areas should be collaborating with which other areas. Harford recognises that it's difficult to have in place the necessary links for problems that cannot be predicted, such as Syria or the Lehman Brothers. However, he seems to be suggesting that cross-silo communication will help to pre-empt this, but I'm not so sure. After all, there's a lot of silos out there, and how do you know you've got on the line to the right one?
Which brings me quite neatly on to the question of Research Council thematic priorities. The Research Councils, as you know, have fully embraced the interdisciplinary agenda. Barely a week goes by without another call for interdisciplinary research. One academic joked with me recently that he imagined a large machine in Death Star House which automatically produced random pairs of abstract nouns, linked by a conjunction, to create the latest priority. 'Health and Wellbeing', 'Culture and Society', 'Science and Justice' etc etc.
But in all seriousness, how are such interdisciplinary areas identified? And what happens to the collaborations that blossom under the RCUK interdisciplinary sun when the weather changes? I think, too, that there is a question of critical mass. Kent was founded on the principles of interdisciplinarity, deliberately avoiding a departmental structure so that cross-disciplinary dialogue would happen in colleges, along corridors where philosophers would be housed next to astrophysicists. However, it had to bow to the inevitable and put all the philosophers together and all the astrophysicists together in separate departments. There is something to be said in having people in the same or similar disciplines together to concentrate their resources, their knowledge, their brain power on solving the issues pertinent to them.
So where does that leave us? Interdisciplinarity is good, but I don't think it's something that can be forced. I'm a little sceptical about calls to encourage collaboration in specific areas. Instead, there should be a broader willingness to accept interdisciplinary work in the mainstream academy, and thus in highly rated journals. In fact, when you think about it, these two concepts may go hand in hand: once the funders stop pushing specific (political?) areas then the scepticism amongst academics might abate, and we might well be left with a more open acceptance of the concept of interdisciplinarity.