A trade to fall back on

There’s a scene from “The Vartabedian Conundrum” in Big Bang Theory where Sheldon says that his Aunt Marion gave him a stethoscope as a child because “he should have a trade to fall back on” if the theoretical physics thing didn’t work out.

Trust me, that’s relevant. But let’s go back a step first.

This year, I was lucky enough to be awarded a grant from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). A modest project, but an exciting one. It was the first time I had applied for funding from the NHMRC. Also during this year, I proposed something interesting and unusual to the Australian Research Council (ARC) in the form of a Discovery Early Career Research Award (DECRA). It was knocked back. It was the second time I had applied to the ARC for funding and my affiliation is the Centre for Health Informatics in the faculty of Medicine at UNSW.

Amongst research grant candidates from medical faculties across Australia, I wasn’t alone. Candidates and projects from medicine are only very rarely funded by the ARC. This is after their projects have been deemed “non-medical” and have been reviewed at much cost to the ARC. I suspect it may be a much more efficient use of taxpayers money if anyone with “health” or “medicine” in their affiliation is simply told not to apply to the ARC, even if their project is entirely non-medical.

Which is quite sad. Let me explain why.

It’s not the money. The money we can get from the NHMRC. And it’s not about being rejected. That’s to be expected when the likelihood is well under 20%. It’s the cross-fertilisation of disciplines that will be eroded by stopping brilliant researchers who currently work in medical domains (and there are plenty) from attempting projects that cross the disciplinary divide.

And I happen to know a bit about multi-disciplinary cross-fertilisation.

I’ve made (the start of) a career out of translating methods from physics into ecology, physics into medicine, theoretical computer science into ecology, sociology into ecology, ecology into medicine, theoretical computer science into sociology, and theoretical computer science into medicine. This sort of thing works so well precisely because fresh perspectives bring with them new solutions to old problems.

So why don’t we translate anything from medicine into other disciplines? Is it because, as Sheldon suggests, medicine is purely a trade to be applied? To suck up all the good research from elsewhere into an “applied” sinkhole?

I don’t think so.

There are plenty of examples of theory-driven research in medicine that could be translated into other disciplines. As an example, here’s the title of the unsuccessful grant I submitted:

“Polarisation and consensus: A computational investigation in networks of social influence and opinion dynamics”

The grant was supposed to be all about understanding how harmful opinions (think climate change denial, anti-vaccination, violent extremism) can propagate through networks with particular patterns (think of the introspective and disconnected networks that separate political ideals, for example). We already know a lot about how clinical evidence flows into decision-making for better or worse, and how distortions can create unusual consensus, so there’s a lot that we can do in the area.

Well, could have.

Instead I’ll be working on this project:

“Using collaboration networks to measure bias and inefficiency in the production and translation of evidence about cardiovascular risk”

Of course, I’m not unhappy. This is an interesting and exciting project, and many worthy projects go unfunded across the Category 1 spectrum. I’m just disappointed that the structure of the ARC and NHMRC continue to drive larger and larger wedges between medicine and other disciplines.

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