Can the UK meet new interdisicplinary challenges?

This morning the today programme did a feature on synthetic biology – a new field that is really taking off and combines the skills of engineering and biology to essentially build biological systems from scratch. I think you can listen again on their website – the item was just before 9am.

The most famous proponent of the field is the american researcher Craig Venter founder of the Institute for Genomic Research in Maryland, USA now called the J Craig Venter Institute with an additional campus in San Diego The Today feature interview Professor John McCarthy, head of the Manchester Interdisciplinary Biocentre who has previously commented on this blog. The feature was very timely as i had just mentioned synthetic biology in NESTAs other blog. This is a new field requiring interdisciplinary research and the ability to work across the physical and biological sciences. If successful, it could have a transformative effect in many areas of technology from pharmaceuticals to biofuels. The problem for the UK is that with our education system which encourages early specialisation, we produce graduates with such a narrow focus that they do not have enough basic knowledge of both fields to flourish in such interdisciplinary areas. The feeling amongst some of the academic community – as relayed to me by a member of staff at the Royal Society – is that because of our education systems the UK may very well be left behind in this important emerging area of research.

Comments

  1. “The problem for the UK is that with our education system which encourages early specialisation, we produce graduates with such a narrow focus that they do not have enough basic knowledge of both fields to flourish”
    Of course, there is no single UK Education system; alternatives to the early specialisation approach do exist!
    The Scottish system for example allows the potential for a much wider range of subjects to be studied, both at school and in the first couple of years of the standard four (or sometimes now five) year degree course, where mixing subjects from different faculties is both possible and encouraged.
    As an example result, we currently have a student doing a Chemistry PhD, whose first degree was in Computing.
    Getting a good grounding in both engineering and biology is entirely possible here, as are other interesting combinations such as physics and music…
    Of course, early specialisation has its advantages as well 🙂

  2. Gordon,
    Of course you are right – the situation is different in Scotland to other parts of the UK, although i suspect its still more specialised than say the american system.

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