The Interdisciplinary Aspect of Bioethics and the Limbo of Academy

Bioethics is an interdisciplinary discipline. With this aspect comes benefits and challenges. Although interdisciplinarity is a buzz word, its reality in the academy is far from the practices established by rigid silos of academic departments and colleges. As bioethics has an interdisciplinary nature, I want to reflect on interdisciplinarity and the limbo of academy.

Once I heard from a professor of epistemology that some words – those with a lot of popularity among scholars and beyond, being part of the common-sense – are very dangerous. This danger is because these words, initially complex concepts, acquire a huge semantic content of meanings that become difficult to define the concept. This creates problems for communication when these words are used. We cannot assume that we exactly know what someone means when these words are used. One of these words is interdisciplinarity.

Interdisciplinarity is a hot word in the academy today. It has been part of many educational discussions in order to provide more interdisciplinary education for students and future professionals able to work in interprofessional teams. Traditionally, departments and colleges at universities have been operated by their own, in their own world and silos. Philosophers only talk to philosophers, physicians only talk to physicians, engineers only talk to engineers, that is, people only talk to their peers in the same field.

Since the renaissance and the advent of the modern scientific methods, it has grown the belief that more specific and specialized an object of research, the better. This led to the development of modern sciences and many of the benefits and progress we have today. However, this focus on very specific subjects also created a tremendous division of areas, with an explosion of disciplines and sub-disciplines, followed by many professional specializations. As a result, we have a fragmentation of knowledge that very often prevents us from seeing the big picture and how these disciplines, sub-disciplines, and specializations are connected. In the healthcare field, for example, this fragmentation creates huge ethical challenges because a patient is not his/her disease; healing a broken leg is not only fixing the leg, but caring for an entire person. In addition, diseases, vulnerability to get ill, and population health are part of societal systems, organizations, and resources that impact people’s whole life. As an interdisciplinary discipline, bioethics functions to connect these parts to address the ethical challenges in the context of the sciences of life.

Interdisciplinarity is a popular word that aims joining different disciplines, sub-disciplines, and professional areas to see the big picture, showing that the world is an organic and interconnected system, and addressing issues with a holistic and ethical perspective.

Although there is an agreement that interdisciplinarity is important and brings benefits for our development, there is not much space for those who promote an interdisciplinary work and research in the academy. In other words, the current discourse spoken by academics and university leaders in favor of promoting interdisciplinarity does not translate into practice. Consequently, those who engage in interdisciplinary work suffer with lack of support and, sometimes, are indirectly damaged because their research does not fit perfectly in one particular, fragmented field and sub-discipline. One example of this damage is when one applies for funds and hears the answer that his/her project does not fit quite well in the area applied. Because it is an interdisciplinary project, very often people evaluating it say something like “it is not enough (name of the discipline)” or “it does not fit here because it has a lot (name of other discipline).” Academics working with interdisciplinary projects lose support and opportunities because of lack of “fitting” in the narrow particularities one specific discipline. It is not appropriate enough for area “A” or “B,” but one forgets the originality of an interdisciplinary effort is exactly the ability to work with different methods, interconnect disciplines, and show the benefits of collaborative projects. Interdisciplinary efforts are diverse and complex because nature and societies are also diverse and complex, but they are not isolated as academic departments and funding agencies are.

Academics promoting interdisciplinary research receive many verbal praises, hearing from their colleagues that what they are doing is great. But nothing of these (or very little) is translated in real support, with funds, opportunities, and recorded credits that will count for the promotion of the work and the career of those engaged in interdisciplinary efforts. In practice, therefore, interdisciplinarity is at the limbo of academy. If you are in the field of bioethics, you probably are one of those promoting interdisciplinarity. Please, do not give up! Your work is needed, and bridges must be built. But be aware that the limbo of the academy is not a pleasant place. Hopefully, this limbo can one day be ended, as the Catholic Church ended the eschatological limbo after centuries affirming its existence, and we don’t have to wait for centuries to see interdisciplinary efforts receive the credit they deserve.

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