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Patterns of multi- and interdisciplinary research in bionanotechnology

Final Activity Report Summary - INTER-BIONANO (Patterns of multi- and interdisciplinary research in bionanotechnology)

Nanotechnology is often presented as an emergent technology of strategic importance that is developing at the interface of physics, chemistry, biology and engineering, and is leading to the convergence of previously disparate technologies, such as biotech and material science. Is this vision accurate? If, so, how do different disciplines interact? How is the technological convergence achieved?

We have investigated these questions by combining analyses of bibliographic databases and interviews with researchers, focusing on two research specialties in bionanotechnology, namely "biomolecular motors" (i.e. proteins that transform chemical energy into displacement) and "lab-on-a-chip" (i.e. micro- and nanofluidic devices used for biomedical applications).

The results of our investigation suggest that:
* Although bionanotechnology as a whole is very diverse, highly interdisciplinary research (in the sense of involving new knowledge integration) is localised at certain topics for a given period. We have developed a methodology using publication data which helps identify these highly integrative areas.
* Different laboratories carry out interdisciplinary research using different strategies. These include various types of collaboration between laboratories, as well as recruitment of researchers from different backgrounds and in-house development.

These results question the current emphasis of science policy discourse on interdisciplinary collaborations for the advancement of bionanotechnology. Although interdisciplinary collaborations play an important role, they should not be expected to be always the dominant mode of research. Precisely because bionanotechnology is so diverse, its research involves different degrees of knowledge integration and it can be carried out in different ways.

Identifying highly interdisciplinary areas:
The inherent conflict with categorisation of interdisciplinarity makes its mapping and evaluation a challenging task, particularly in emergent fields. We propose a conceptual framework that aims to capture interdisciplinarity in the wider sense of knowledge integration, by exploring the concepts of diversity and coherence. The underlying idea is that "true" interdisciplinarity needs both diversity of disciplines and a coherent articulation. On the one hand, we use disciplinary diversity indicators to describe the heterogeneity of predefined disciplinary categories of a publication set, i.e. using a top-down approach. On the other hand, we construct network coherence indicators to measure the intensity of articulation of the publication set, i.e. using a bottom-up approach. Disciplinary diversity indicates the large-scale breadth of the knowledge base of a publication; network coherence reflects the novelty of its knowledge integration. The combination of these two analyses over time allows us to identify highly integrative areas.

Strategies for interdisciplinary research:
We explored the dynamics of knowledge integration and the knowledge acquisition strategies for research projects in "biomolecular motors" and "lab-on-a-chip". First, we found that knowledge integration was very asymmetrical: a project used materials and techniques from various disciplines at standard level of know-how, but focused its research effort on the unique expertise of the home laboratory. Second, projects displayed various strategies to acquire knowledge: only few of the projects examined relied mainly on 'fully' interdisciplinary practices (deep collaborations across laboratories based in different disciplines or within laboratories containing many backgrounds), while most projects combined different strategies, including service collaboration, limited recruitment and in-house learning. The choice of strategy depended both on the institutional context of of the lab (availability of funding, PhD students, etc.), and on the cognitive distance between the bodies of knowledge brought together.