Exemplary results from University of Dundee’s Discovery Centre prove value of interdisciplinary research methods

IN the past, scientific discovery was a solitary business. When Archimedes shouted “Eureka” (“I found it!”), we can assume that he was alone. Certainly, his decision to run naked through the streets of Syracuse to share his discovery would have been a difficult sell to a research team.

In modern times, the complex questions science sets out to answer require experts from different backgrounds to work together. The molecular biologists James Watson and Francis Crick needed the diffraction photography of Rosalind Franklin, a chemist and X-ray crystallographer, to work out the structure of DNA.

Today, most discoveries are made by collaborative groups. These can be working in different institutions and in different parts of the world. 

What is becoming more interesting, however, is that they are ever more likely to be from different academic disciplines. Talking about groups of subjects under an umbrella name like STEM is one way that this phenomenon is becoming more visible outside universities. 

Disciplines give structure and rigour to the development of knowledge and to passing it on to the next generation. However, there are good arguments against having a single discipline mind-set in academic research. It can be in the gaps between disciplinary boundaries – the interdisciplinary areas – that major new insights and breakthroughs occur. 

HeraldScotland:

Formulae for success: The Discovery Centre’s collaborative approach has attracted funding in key areas.

It was an understanding of the value of this dynamic that was behind the University of Dundee’s decision to establish a £26 million Discovery Centre for Translational and Interdisciplinary Research. Opened in 2014 it was designed to further develop already very active drug discovery programmes in neglected tropical diseases and in other areas of unmet medical need, such as cancer, inflammation and eczema.

The Centre is also home to a research division of computational biology, incorporating bioinformatics, biophysics; data analysis and software development as well as a laboratory for quantitative proteomics. In effect, it integrates expertise in cell biology, mass spectrometry and “big-data” analytics. 

According to Professor Sir Mike Ferguson, Regius Professor of Life Sciences and Academic Lead for Research Strategy at the University of Dundee, these interdisciplinary and high-tech activities are essential to the future of life sciences research.

Sir Paul Nurse, who opened the centre, said: “This new centre provides exciting opportunities to bring different disciplines together, each bringing expertise to bear on aspects of larger, systems level problems relating to biology, drug discovery and drug design.”

One of the barriers to collaborative research has been funding streams built around single disciplines. 

The recent establishment of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), bringing together seven, discipline-aligned research councils to “collectively become more than the sum of its parts”, was, in part, a response to the need for improved handling of multi- and inter-disciplinary research. 

The author of the review from which UKRI grew was, co-incidentally, Sir Paul Nurse, whose report talked about support for inter-disciplinary research. 

A £1.5 billion Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) is one way in which UKRI is promoting such an approach.

The Scottish Funding Council is an active partner in the initiative which aims to contribute to the “sustainable and inclusive prosperity” of people in developing countries.

In 2018-19, over £8.3 million of GCRF allocations were made to Scottish institutions, funding 120 Scottish university projects in more than 50 countries.

Elsewhere, the Scottish Funding Council is encouraging interdisciplinary approaches through its funding of the Cancer Innovation Challenge which brings together three Scottish Innovation Centres; The Data Lab, the Digital Health and Care Institute and Stratified Medicine Scotland, helping Scotland to become a world-leading carer for people with cancer.

Interdisciplinary research and innovation, supported by investments by the Scottish Funding Council and its partners, is at the heart of modern Scottish university research. It is helping to make it much more likely that those “we found it” moments will happen in Scotland.

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Tearing down walls to build the future

Professor Sir Mike Ferguson tells the story behind Dundee’s Discovery Centre, ‘One of the great biomedical research centres of the UK’

The University of Dundee’s Discovery Centre was opened in 2014 by Sir Paul Nurse who hailed it as “one of the great biomedical research centres of the UK”. 

Earlier, the Lancet had praised the university’s strategy for the Centre, saying that something “very special” was taking place. It welcomed the “tearing down of disciplinary walls to put chemists next to biologists, industry scientists beside academics”.

Two years before the opening however, all of this seemed tantalisingly close but frustratingly out of reach. Although construction was well under way, our funding was just enough to furnish half the space we were building. The turning point came when we successfully applied for £12 million of funding from the UK Research Partnership Investment Fund (UKRPIF).

HeraldScotland:

JOIN IN: Enabling scientists from different disciplines to work together has paid dividends.

As well as allowing us to both furbish and equip the complete building, the confidence that the UK Research Partnership Investment Fund showed in the Discovery Centre has proved to be the catalyst for other crucial investments. 

We were subsequently awarded £14 million by the Wellcome Trust to establish the Wellcome Centre for Anti-Infectives Research and a further £8 million to power drug discovery programmes in close partnership with the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline – a great illustration of how the Discovery Centre is also helping us to make meaningful links with industry.

So, almost five years from its opening, what else has the Discovery Centre achieved? I like to think that it has been true to its subtitle “Centre for Translational and Interdisciplinary Research”.

The main “translation” force is our Drug Discovery Unit which occupies two floors of the Centre. This unit translates discovery science into potential drugs for infectious diseases like malaria, tuberculosis and leishmaniasis, and also into targets for other conditions like Alzheimer’s, skin diseases and cancer. It does this by bringing right into the heart of the university industry experts and all the relevant technologies. The Drug Discovery Unit has been extremely successful, growing from about 60 staff in 2013 to over 100 now.

Interdisciplinary work is integral to drug discovery (synthetic, computational and analytical chemistry blended with biology, physiology and pharmacology), but the “tearing down of disciplinary walls” extends beyond this. Our Division of Computational Biology includes experts in bio- and chemo-informatics, theoretical physicists, mathematicians and software engineers who work alongside experimental biologists across our Schools of Life Sciences and Medicine. 

The Discovery Centre has also powered the commercialisation of research, with, for example, a collaboration deal on Alzheimer’s disease with Japanese pharmaceutical company Takeda, and the spin-out of biotech company Platinum Informatics from our Quantitative Proteomics group.

I strongly believe that bringing together these two powerful forces of translation and interdisciplinary research is absolutely crucial to future progress in science and technology. The University of Dundee has been able to create a place where this can happen. It is also helping to make the future of Dundee University and of the city a very exciting one.