Digitalisation promotes interdisciplinarity

Many problems of the digital age cannot be solved in one discipline alone, says Prof. Dr. Gerd Folkers in an interview. On the second day of our Transform conference , he will talk about how the individual disciplines can work together in a more networked way. Mr Folkers, your lecture deals with the question of how the digital transformation supports interdisciplinarity. Up to now, science has been strictly divided into disciplines. How can this be softened? It has long been softened at the edges of the disciplines. Social problems, such as climate change, cannot be dealt with by one discipline alone, but require all forms of cooperation and exchange. This is well established. At the core of every discipline, however, it is just as necessary to keep pushing that discipline forward, to ask critical questions of itself and to strengthen the discipline in its theoretical foundation. Often, both fields merge and form a new discipline, such as molecular biology/biophysics, biochemistry, synthetic biology, or biomedicine, computer science or brain research. In order to be able to work in an interdisciplinary way, it is important to master one’s own discipline. Which disciplines are particularly in demand/affected by the transformation? All disciplines are affected. Even those that don’t (want to) know it today. The virtual availability of collective experiences and data from science in such large quantities and with such rapid accessibility allows for completely new questions. While technology is developing rapidly, the organisation of science, for example, with its traditional hierarchies and processes, still seems to be at the beginning in terms of digital transformation. In your view, which aspects need to be addressed as a priority? Technology should not become a guiding force for its own sake. A sufficiently critical distance is part of the scientific questioning. I often miss this because things are done simply because they can be done without questioning whether this experiment or that study is really relevant. How can the disciplines be better interconnected? By asking difficult questions. Networking is hardly possible top-down, nor is it desirable. Every complex question starts with the difficulty of formulating the problem and possible ways to answer it(wicked problems). In most cases, one then goes to other disciplinary environments to learn and work together on the formulation. This is to be distinguished from the exchange of methods, in which, for example, a specific analytical question from medicine is posed to technical sciences. But even from these cooperations, completely unexpected new problems often arise that are scientifically interesting. Examples are the digital detection and characterisation of tumour cells, or new simulation methods. What is your personal vision of interdisciplinarity? The development of new perspectives from joint projects. For this, virtual exchange platforms with machine learning are just as necessary as “real” opportunities to meet at “catalytic” locations.


About the person

Prof. Dr. Gerd Folkers is President of the Swiss Science Council and Professor of Science Research at ETH Zurich. He will give the closing lecture at the Transform conference on 13 September on the topic of “How digitalisation supports interdisciplinarity”.


Transform Conference

The conference “TRANSFORM – Digital Skills for the Transformation of Disciplines, Business, and Government” took place from 12 to 13 September and was organised by the Institute Public Sector Transformation and Institute Digital Enabling in cooperation with national and international partners as a forum to discuss challenges around digital transformation. The Swiss Informatics Society was an event partner. The conference programme can be found here.

AUTOR/AUTORIN: Anne-Careen Stoltze

Anne-Careen Stoltze is Editor in Chief of the science magazine SocietyByte. She works in communications at BFH Business School, she is a journalist and geologist.

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