Sex, lives and conspiracy

A commentary on the latest CISoR cross-disciplinary event held on 19/10/16 by Phil Ward, Deputy Director of Research Services

Whilst funders are increasingly pushing for interdisciplinary research, actually making it happen is a tough challenge. At the University of Kent we were established to break down the barriers between disciplines – to be ‘a community where different disciplines mix up,’ to quote the first Vice Chancellor, Geoffrey Templeman. I’ve written in the past about the difficulty of reaching ‘beyond the safety of the silo’, and what we’ve done to try and help the process, such as through sandpits.

Ultimately though it is up to the academics to reach across the disciplinary boundaries, to look at what others are doing, and to recognise the ways in which their work can inform, broaden and deepen your own – and vice versa. I’ve followed very closely how Prof Darren Griffin (Biosciences) and Prof Sally Sheldon (KLS) have established the CISoR and recently went, for the first time, to one of their events. Entitled ‘Sex, Lives and Conspiracy,’ it brought together colleagues from across the University, and was an opportunity to learn about a very diverse range of research going on in all three faculties.

I came to the event late: I was showing visitors from the British Academy around the campus, and thought that they would be interested in eavesdropping on this conversation. And how: you could see their eyes light up at fizzing, crackling mix of papers that were presented, from the creative clash of Dorothy Lehane working with colleagues in biomedical science and crafting poetic responses to their life and work, to the psychological determinants of conspiracy theorists, to the ‘biography’ of the 1967 Abortion Act.

Altogether there were eleven speakers, and between them they represented a huge variety of research. Interestingly, for a centre led by a Professor of Genetics, there was less ‘hard science’, and more explorations of the effects that such science had had on society and culture. Thus, for instance, Jan McVarish explored questions of evidence and trust in the fertility sector, and the implications for concepts of ‘informed consent.’ Becki Gould, who works in the London Women’s Clinic, relayed stories of patients who were undergoing a revolutionary new IVF technique. Extending an exploratory thread further, David Ayers, from the School of English, gave a fascinating insight into the way that intimacy and birth control were represented in the novels and newspapers of the first half of the twentieth century.

On the face of it, there was little binding these threads together, and it would be a tough quiz night question that tried to link Shakespeare and grammar schools, impact bias and behavioural genetics. However, I was impressed by the recurring issues. and the ways in which they (reproduction, conspiracy and so forth) were dealt with by different academic disciplines.

There was an opportunity to explore these further in the coffee break, and in the drinks reception that followed. And that, ultimately, was key to the success of the day: it got people talking, informally, animatedly, about the common threads that weaved through the diverse research landscape. Often it is at the edge of disciplines where the discoveries happen, in the hinterland where perspectives change and the unexpected is more likely to be encountered; where nothing is taken for granted. Darren suggested that further workshops and symposia might use some of these themes, some of these threads, to explore the common landscape further. In so doing he is returning the University to its interdisciplinary roots, and through these ensuring its future development, strength and success.