A few weeks ago I attended the Southampton Multidisciplinary Research Forum or SMuRF for short. Graciously organized by a number of volunteers the aim of the two day conference was to bring together researchers from a wide range of disciplines and encourage multidisciplinary thinking and collaboration.
It was an initiative I greatly welcomed and probably should have been involved with. As a computer scientist with a wide interest in science and engineering, multidisciplinary problems are what interest me the most. As I have blogged before I am not so much a theory person as somebody who wants to solve practical problems and bring about a real benefit to the application domain.
The conference itself was organized very well and I was rather surprised to find about 60-80 people from a very wide range of fields. Tables and seats were colour coded to ensure a good mix of disciplines at each table. A number of speakers were invited with the headliner probably being Chirs Lintott from Zooniverse fame who gave a great talk about how multidisciplinary work can arise serendipitously. In between talks there were speed networking sessions which, although a bit chaotic and tiring, worked quite well.
One of the first sessions was about the activity that occupies and drives much of an academic’s day to day activities: writing grant applications. We were given a number of successful grant applications and asked to comment on them and decide how much of their requested budget we would grant. This was later discussed with the rest of attendees en group. One of the things that struck me was how much emphasis was placed on the Impact statement and how important it was. Moreover, what struck me most was that many researchers seemed to be grappling with this. To me the fact that the impact statement is important and core to your proposal has always been self evident. I never realized how, for many people, this was not the case. This message was also hammered home by the closing address by the Vice Chancellor of research who gave an a very interesting overview of the state of the university, its aspirations, and the strategic thinking around the Research Excellence Framework.
I left the first day of the conference in quite a good mood, happy that I had attended and optimistic about the next day. I was also happy I was feeling better as I had been sick the week before which forced me to cancel two other conferences I had been keen on attending: Google/FutreGov’s Interactivism and Dev8D.
The second day turned out to be a bit more frustrating. While everybody seemed to agree that multidisciplinary thinking and research was a good thing and something they should do more, I am unaware of anybody who actually took the next step. The next step being to actually sit down and proactively probe the other person about what overlap there was, what cool stuff could be done together, and take it further. This was exactly what I was hoping would happen, a more concrete follow up to the speed networking sessions if you like. Of course most of this is up to you and how proactive you are. But you can only talk to so many people so I think a more formal follow up would be useful.
Personally I talked to as many people as I could but found little no willingness to actually get down to the nitty gritty. The need didn’t seem to exist as strongly as the discussions during the previous day seemed to have suggested. Or maybe its just that nobody wants to work with me 🙂
So while the set of people generally interested in multidisciplinary work was very large, the set that actually overlaps with your own interests and goals and who have the time and will to actually sit down and do something is much much smaller. Which is kind to be expected I guess. This made me think it would be good to have some kind of (very simple!) matchmaking website which researchers can use to see who is in that set. I sketched out a UI & the control flow on some napkins and planned to use the opportunity to learn a new web framework to implement it in (e.g., Rails, Compojure, or Play). Unfortunately though its still sitting on my TODO list and I have simply not found the extra time to learn a new language and framework to get it setup. Hopefully sometime.
In the meantime I did come across came across The Software Sustainability Institute and the collaboration workshop its organizing in Oxford next week. Looks like something right up my alley so I signed up right away and am looking forward to it. I also joined a number of Knowledge Transfer Networks as well as the SMMI and Energy University Strategic Research Groups and the BioXnet metagroup. Lets see what happens.
So in sum, if you’re reading this and you have a problem that could use some computational thinking/tools, speak up now 🙂