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Sandpit initiative digs deep to bring disciplines together

Nature volume 427, page 187 (15 January 2004) | Download Citation

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Dundee

A British research agency is trying out a fresh approach to creating interdisciplinary projects. It throws researchers from different fields into a 'sandpit' for a week with the promise of £1 million (US$1.8 million) in support for the best ideas to come out of it.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) tried out the concept for the first time in Dundee, Scotland, last month — and participants pronounced it an instant success. The topic was angiogenesis — the formation of new blood vessels — and the outcome was two proposed collaborations that the agency says it is likely to support.

The exercise wasn't without its pitfalls, however, as researchers struggled to get inside one another's heads. “I just don't understand the language they use,” sighed Ana Schor, a cell biologist at the University of Dundee, after hearing a talk by a mathematician.

Although multidisciplinary workshops are commonplace, EPSRC officials say that their allocation of £1 million to support proposals from the sandpit was a new departure, which they hope to build on. “It worked,” says John King, a mathematician at the University of Nottingham who helped to organize the meeting. “I'd like to see the approach applied to funding other subjects.”

About 40 mathematicians, engineers, biologists, clinicians and others attended the session, and differences between their use of terminology and methodology surfaced early on. Mathematicians, for example, complained that the biologists wanted to build models containing too many variables, whereas the biologists were frustrated at what they saw as the mathematicians' inability to explain clearly just what their models could achieve.

Some discussions went round in circles for hours as participants failed to settle on an aspect of the problem that could hold everybody's attention. “The social dynamics are as interesting as the science,” says Oliver Jensen, an applied mathematician at the University of Nottingham. When proposals for grants did start to emerge, tensions rose again as different ideas competed for the prize on offer.

Two of these eventually won out. Researchers from Imperial College London and the universities of Nottingham, Oxford and Dundee are expected to get £600,000 to develop a kind of three-dimensional Petri dish. The dish will be used to examine how molecules involved in blood-vessel formation cause cells to release other compounds, for example, and to migrate. In the long term, they hope to simulate the formation of complete blood vessels in the device.

Another project, led by Christopher Mitchell, an expert in angiogenesis at the University of Nottingham, is set to get £400,000 to use new imaging technology to observe the formation of blood vessels in live mice. Both projects are expected to be funded after formal peer review.

“The meeting certainly generated ideas,” says Robert Keatch, a microengineer from the University of Dundee. “It was more intense than a conference because we had to come up with a research proposal in five days.”

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