Science, Humanities and Researching Problems of the Environment (SHARPEN)

Exploratory Award

Project Team:

Principal Investigator:

Professor J. Andrew Mendelsohn, Queen Mary, University of London (formerly Imperial College London)


Professor E.J. Milner- Gulland, Imperial College London

Dr Simon Pooley, Imperial College London

Award Information:

This Exploratory Award project undertook a historical survey of multi-disciplinary research on problems of the environment. It generated the beginnings of a synthetic empirical basis for working our how co-operation between the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities can fruitfully be undertaken in the future.

Reinventing the wheel: this is what has been happening, our study reveals, for over half a century in an area of supposedly novel challenge and opportunity today – interdisciplinary research on problems of the environment across the natural/social and sciences/humanities divides.  Historical survey shows that very similar challenges have been repeatedly identified since the 1950s and very similar solutions attempted since the 1970s.

This study suggests, moreover, that challenges of working together have had less to do with purported sciences/humanities divides – such as qualitative versus quantitative method – than with generic inhibiting features of disciplinarity and, still more surprisingly, with the absence of virtues of disciplinarity.  In other words, multiple-disciplinary work has tended to retain the worst of disciplinarity and miss the best of it.  Review found lack of awareness of previous work, tendency to read within disciplinary boundaries, and turnover of projects, institutions, and people, all resulting in a failure of memory.  The vices of disciplines continue to operate within multiple-disciplinary research meant to overcome those vices.  And the rise of multiple-disciplinary projects and programmes has entailed loss of a key virtue of disciplines: institutionalised memory and cumulative knowledge.

Project website:

Further information:

A Case Study (PDF) of this AHRC Science in Culture Theme Exploratory Award is available to download here.

Project dates: February- August 2012