New models for collaboration between social and natural sciences

Speaker: Prof Joyce Tait # University of Edinburgh

21st Oct 2013

15:30 - 17:00

Conference Room, David Hume Tower


In this talk I will reflect on an interdisciplinary, mainly academic career that has travelled from a first degree in pharmaceutical chemistry, through a PhD in land economy, to social psychology and then to systems analysis, with areas of application in pesticide development and regulation, integrated pest management, sustainable agriculture, GM crops, wildlife conservation, broadening out with the Innogen grant to cover pharmaceuticals, stem cell therapies and synthetic biology. Looking back I can see what a crucially formative experience my PhD was in this process, although I was too busy to notice at the time.

The PhD is normally one’s indoctrination into an academic tribe so that, faced with a future research question, one has a ready portfolio of theory and method with which to address it. As an academic nomad, lacking that relatively stable environment, how does one cope with real-world complexity to ask useful research questions and deliver helpful answers? Lacking the quality standards that are an integral part of the culture of a discipline, how can one judge the quality of interdisciplinary research?

Along with colleagues David Wield and Joanna Chataway, most recently through the ESRC Innogen Centre grant, I have been building an approach that is interdisciplinary and is transferable across a wide range of research questions. It incorporates discipline based insights and provides useful analyses of problems or opportunities of interest to natural scientists and companies working in life sciences and related areas. The theories and methods that are part of disciplinary thinking are still very important in this process, but they are chosen to fit the needs of a project, not the discipline of the analyst.

I will illustrate my talk with some examples showing how the process of integration that is the hallmark of interdisciplinary research can provide new and sometimes unexpected insights into complex issues that would not have arisen from research conducted within a single discipline.


Speaker Biography 

Joyce Tait has an interdisciplinary background covering both natural and social sciences and has worked on the agrochemical, pharmaceutical and life science industries, specifically strategic planning for innovation, governance and regulation, and stakeholder attitudes and influences. Relevant life science areas include synthetic biology, genetic databases, GM crops, biofuels, pharmaceuticals, stem cell therapies and translational medicine. Current and recent appointments: Technology Strategy Board (TSB) Synthetic Biology Leadership Council; UK Department of Health Emerging Science and Bioethics Advisory Committee (ESBAC); Board of Directors, Scottish Stem Cell Network Ltd; Board of Directors, Roslin Foundation; Scottish Science Advisory Council; Scientific and Technical Council of the International Risk Governance Council (IRGC), Geneva. She also chaired the Working Party of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics on ‘Biofuels: Ethical Issues’, was a member of the committee advising the UK Food Standards Agency on its public dialogue on GM foods, and is now a member of the committee advising the TSB on its public consultation on stratified medicine.


For more information, please contact Alyson Macdonald (tel. 0131 650 9113).