What multidisciplinary means: Nature doesn’t care about our building blocks

Rats in a maze, by ithinkx on Flickr (cc-by-nc-nd)

The deeper you dig into most matters, the more complex things become. International development research is no different – and, given that it is people’s wellbeing that is the chief concern here, the imperative to pay due regard to such complexity is great indeed.

Dr Gianni Lo Iacono is a mathematical modeller and a partner in the Dynamic Drivers of Disease in Africa Consortium, a large, multidisciplinary research programme convened by the STEPS Centre. The Consortium is exploring the links between disease, ecosystems and wellbeing.

Gianni recently got to grips with just how ambitious this research programme is and how complex things can become when he undertook a field trip to Sierra Leone. Here, the Consortium is investigating the drivers behind Lassa fever – a rodent-borne viral infection common in West Africa, where there are up to 300,000 cases of the disease and 5,000 deaths as a result of it every year.

Writing on the ‘Nature’ blog Soapbox Science, Gianni explains the attraction of a multidisciplinary project such as the Drivers of Disease one.

I am a strong advocate of the old-fashioned, reductionist approach. Accordingly, any complex scientific problem should be broken down into its basic building blocks. Of course nature doesn’t care about our traditional compartmental division of science and therefore there is no reason to think that the building blocks must belong to one and only one discipline.’

He says that visiting Sierra Leone was ‘an amazing experience’ and that it ‘illustrated clearly that forcing ourselves to allocate each building block of a complex ecosystem to one discipline alone seems only to set up a path for failure’.

The field trip saw Gianni returning to the UK with more questions than answers. You can find out why by reading Gianni’s blog in its entirely at Nature Soapbox Science.

This article was originally posted on the The Crossing.