Multidisciplinary research – an essential driver for innovation

TrewhellaEditor’s note: today’s entry was written by Professor Jill Trewhella (pictured to the right), Deputy Vice Chancellor – Research, University of Sydney, Australia. It was originally delivered at the Australian Financial Review Higher Education Conference, 9 March 2009. Our thanks to Nicholas Haskins, Program Manager (International Networks), Office of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (International), for bringing this interesting text to our attention, and to Professor Trewhella for allowing us to post it here. Professor Trewhella is Professor of Molecular and Microbial Bioscience and a former Director of Bioscience at America’s top nuclear research facility, the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

I’ve included some relevant images below, that were taken today, of two of UW-Madison’s new multidisciplinary research complexes — the nearly finished Wisconsin Institutes for Medical Research (the top 2 images) and the under-construction Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery (the bottom 2 images). Kris Olds

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The Challenges and Opportunities for Multidisciplinary Research in a World of Complex, Interdependent Systems

For 2000 years, the advancement of knowledge in western civilization has taken a path of increasing specialization.  We have approached understanding our world by deconstructing it into smaller and smaller fragments creating the disciplines and subdisciplines in order to be able to predict, or at least to explain, behaviour in nature, individuals, and society.

UWmed1In today’s knowledge landscape there are powerful drivers for multidisciplinary research.  Through simple collaboration, researchers from different disciplines can accomplish more by teaming.  Interdisciplinary research moves beyond simple collaboration and teaming to integrate data, methodologies, perspectives, and concepts from multiple disciplines in order to advance fundamental understanding or to solve real world problems.  Interdisciplinary research requires either that an individual researcher gains a depth of understanding two or more than one discipline and be fluent in their languages and methodologies, or more frequently that multidisciplinary teams assemble and create a common language and framework for discovery and innovation.

The drivers for interdisciplinary research are varied.

  • In the first instance, nature and society are complex, and our innate curiosity to understand the elements and forces within them requires examination from the perspective of multiple disciplines.
  • Importantly, we have a critical need to solve societal problems in a world that is subject to many forces:
    • The example most urgently felt at this time is the consequence of failing to fully understand all of the forces unleashed by the free movement of capital and globalization.
    • Only a short time ago, our urgent focus was on climate change, where we must consider, among other things, how oceans and rivers are influenced by land use and the products of industrialization, atmospheric constituents and solar radiation.  These subsystems are linked in time and space and have embedded in them multiple feedback mechanisms.
  • The complexity presented in each of these real world examples requires interdisciplinary research that spans the natural and social sciences if we are to attain the kind of predictive capability that could inform policy makers.
  • Finally, we know that the tools that we have available to examine our world are most often transformational when drawn from outside the discipline that developed them; such as the discovery of X-rays by physicists and their impact on medicine, or the creation of the internet by the military and its impact on communication in society at large.

Academic institutions are largely organized in ways that promote the advancement of individual disciplines, or sub-disciplines.  Policies that govern hiring, promotion, and the allocation of resources often work against interdisciplinary research.  If interdisciplinary research is to flourish in academia, then the reward systems in academia have to recognize the different pace with which interdisciplinary research may proceed and the fact that it is often a team rather than individual accomplishment.  There also is a need for flexible organizational structures that can operate across discipline-focused departments.  Directed institutes and centres with seed funding can encourage interdisciplinary research.  But more fundamental advances may emerge from creating a body of scholarly work that establishes common languages and frameworks in specific areas and examines what makes successful interdisciplinary research.  This approach is one we are pursuing at the University of Sydney with our newly established Social Sciences Institute and our Institute for Sustainable Solutions.

UWmed2Funding agencies also encounter difficulties in facilitating interdisciplinary research, and must find creative mechanisms for overcome barriers, such as:

  • Peer review systems that depend heavily on experts from single disciplines, and the reality that interdisciplinary peer review panels are not easy to assemble and operate.
  • The extra time needed for interdisciplinary teams to learn develop a common language and framework for study is an impediment in a competitive system that is research output driven.
  • How do we set performance goals for evaluating an interdisciplinary research program.
  • Interdisciplinary research is likely to be expensive; multiple chief investigators have to come together with disparate capabilities.
  • Supporting interdisciplinary research requires an increased tolerance of risk.
  • It is often the case that when an agency puts out a call for an interdisciplinary program, pressure is felt from all sides to over-promise and under-budget, leading to the inevitable problem of under-performance.

Benchmarking the mechanisms by which successful interdisciplinary programs have been supported is essential to ensuring the most return for investment in this challenging area.  Looking at home and abroad at the results of using problem focused calls, seed funding, sustained funding over a longer term, targeted fellowships, etc, is essential for future planning.

Training researchers to work at the interfaces of the disciplines

Training researchers who can transcend the barriers that exist between the disciplines requires innovation in teaching and learning.   In the University setting, our training programs largely focus on in depth training in a discipline or a set of closely related sub-disciplines.  To develop the pool of researchers who are best prepared for interdisciplinary research, we need undergraduate programs that provide depth in the major discipline(s) while also enabling students to participate in interdisciplinary courses and be exposed to research experiences that transcend the discipline of their major.

The earlier in our training that we are exposed to different languages and methodologies, the better we are able to understand the potential contributions that may come from outside our discipline.  The better we are able to formulate complex questions and then integrate data, ideas, and perspectives as we seek answers.

WID1PhD programs need to consider the benefits of broader exposure.  Lowering the barriers to students moving between institutions and even disciplines could have great benefits for our ability to train the next generation of interdisciplinary researchers and researchers who are facile at participating in interdisciplinary teaming.  We need to recognize the benefits for students who gain training in one discipline to be able to acquire training in another – and enable it to happen.

There are examples of successful programs aimed at encouraging interdisciplinary training.  I once hosted in my Biophysics laboratory (which was in a Chemistry Department!) a young graduate student from the Mathematical Biology Department who was participating in the Integrated Graduate Education Research Traineeship (IGERT) program sponsored by the US National Science Foundation.  The idea was, in this case, for the student to learn the difficulties involved in acquiring accurate biophysical data.  The student had no aspirations to become an experimentalist, but he left my laboratory understanding how the data were generated and what its limitations and strengths were; and importantly what he would be asking of his collaborators to produce more data!  He could use this knowledge to formulate the questions he needed to ask of other kinds of experimental data that would be the ultimate test of his theoretical frameworks.  This example may seem a very modest one, as the distance between mathematical biology and experimental biophysics seems not so great, but as such it is a good demonstration of how difficult it can be to become truly interdisciplinary.  The languages, cultures and goals of what might be thought of as subdisciplines here, often make what is learned in one of no value to the other; the theorist’s spherical cow being the anecdotal example epitomizing the gulf of understanding between theory and experiment in the study of biological systems.

WID3The potential for interdisciplinary research ultimately hinges on the extent to which individuals want to engage in it, and equally importantly if they have the opportunity to do so.  Academia, national laboratories, and industry can create the opportunities and incentives to attract our best and brightest to this frontier.  The individual interdisciplinary researcher is likely to be a relatively rare bird, and it will be the teams of researchers that are more the norm for advancing interdisciplinary research.  Research teams are in themselves modestly complex social entities and in their 2004 study entitled Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research, a panel of the US National Academy of Sciences found that they were limited by the lack of a body of peer reviewed research in the social sciences that “elucidated the complex social and intellectual processes that make for successful interdisciplinary research.”  While we have made some strides in thinking about the role of flexible structures and funding incentives to facilitate multidisciplinary teams coming together for a problem focussed effort or an area study, there is a need for social scientists to grapple with the more fundamental aspects of what facilitates successful interdisciplinary research; that is what enables high performance teams breaking down the barriers of language and culture and create knowledge that drives innovation.

References

National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute Medicine. (2004) Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research, Washington DC, National Academies Press.

David Easton (1991) The Division, Integration, and Transfer of Knowledge, Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vol 44, No 4, pp 8-27, American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Jill Trewhella

Finland’s Aalto University (est. 2010): institutionalizing interdisciplinary thinking for innovation in the knowledge economy

Yesterday’s Financial Times included an informative story (‘Merger with innovation at its heart‘) on the development process of Aalto University in Finland.  Aalto University is being created through the merger of three existing institutions – the Helsinki School of Economics, the University of Art and Design Helsinki and the Helsinki University of Technology – and will formally open in January 2010.

As the FT puts it:

Across the world, business people, creative types and technology geeks struggle to understand each other. Their education and training, even much of their work, is carried out in separ­ate silos, with exciting collaborations the exception rather than the rule.

Now Helsinki’s business school, art college and technology school have come up with a radical plan: a three-way merger to create what they claim will be a unique, integrated seedbed for innovation. The new institution, Aalto University, will offer joint courses later this year and will be open fully at the beginning of 2010 as the flagship project in a national shake-up of higher education.

The government, academics and Finland’s business community, which is strongly represented on Aalto’s board, are hoping to capitalise on the country’s record in industrial and product design and to create an internationally competitive, business-focused institution that takes inter-disciplinary working to an extreme not seen anywhere else in the world.

tuulateeri1The website for Aalto University (named after Alvar Aalto) suggests that the new university will have (based on aggregate statistics from 2007) 19,200 students (1,140 of them foreign) and 4,150 staff (53% in teaching and research), with an annual budget of EUR 296 million (61% from the Ministry of Education, 39% from external financiers). The first president will be Professor Tuula Teeri (pictured here), currently Vice President, Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), Stockholm, Sweden.

This approach to higher education formalizes and institutionalizes (at a scaled up level) what some programs or schools are currently attempting to do in many countries (see, for example, Susan Robertson’s entry ‘A creative combination: adding MBAs and art schools together to increase innovation‘). Yet there are also historical precedents: one of my European Commission colleagues noted, for example, the similarity of Aalto University’s development agenda to the origin ideas behind the MIT Media Lab.  And I can’t help but think that the merge will also reposition these universities (or, university) in the European and global rankings exercises…while not the reason to ever do anything as bold as a merger, the rankings factor is unlikely to be irrelevant.

While the development process for Aalto University will probably not be as seamless as the FT article implies, despite being guided by a well thought through “Transformation Organisation“:

aaltotransformationorg

Aalto University is shaping up to be a fascinating experiment; one well worth examining, and also comparing to smaller scale initiatives in other contexts, or different foci initiatives such as the new (built from scratch) King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia.

Finally, see below for a 22 page slide show produced by Aalto University, which is available here in PDF format.

Kris Olds

Do young ‘innovators’ flourish in universities?

After nearly a year in existence, one of the regular themes we have been profiling in GlobalHigherEd is the relative weight, or presence, of universities in the global research landscape. See, for example, the 4 August entry ‘Globalizing research: forces, patterns, and collaborative practices‘. Of course universities matter – as they should and always will – but the broad trend that we have noted is that firms, think tanks, NGOs, multilateral organizations, topic-specific expert groups, and so on, are playing an increasingly important role in the production of knowledge, of innovation, of creative impulses.

Today’s Chronicle of Higher Education has an interesting story (‘Fewer University-Based Researchers Appear on 2008 List of Young Innovators‘) which highlights the fact the Technology Review (published by MIT) only lists 17 out of 35 “Young Innovators Under 35” with affiliations to universities.  This number is down from 22 out of 25 in 2007. The other 18 “young innovators” in 2008 are based in firms including Drupal, ICx Technologies, Thatgamecompany, and Twitter. The Technology Review article includes video interviews with other winners as well.

Now, it is easy to be be critical or suspicious regarding this pattern, and even more so as this is but one US-based technology-focused magazine (as proxy measure). Yet universities are becoming, according to increasing numbers of analysts (e.g., Arjun Appadurai), merely one of many sites of knowledge production; a diversification trend that begs the question why?

Is it because of relatively low pay, or rigid institutional structures and lack of opportunity for career progression? Or is it because of ever increasing demands on faculty as mission mandates widen? Or is it due to morale challenges in the context of limited (or declining) levels of state funding? My own university, for example acquires a mere 18% of its budget from the State of Wisconsin despite being a public university with significant state-focused responsibilities.

Or is it because the carrots associated with firms and NGOs, for example, are all too obvious to young researchers? I recently returned from a year in Paris, for example, and was shocked at the lack of opportunity for genuinely brilliant young PhDs. Why wait 10-15 years, if one is lucky, to get the position and space to be somewhat independently creative, when this space is on offer, right now, outside of academe? The creation of an attractive and conducive context, especially for young researchers, is a challenge right now in numerous higher ed systems.

The position of the university as a significant space of knowledge production is not to be taken for granted.

Kris Olds

Surveying US dominance in science and technology for the Secretary of Defense

The global higher education and research landscape is a fast changing one at this point in history. Amongst many indicators we have increasingly powerful players (e.g., Kaplan, Thomson Reuters), new interregional and global imaginaries starting to generate broad effects (e.g., via the global dimensions of the Bologna Process), a series of coordinated multi-university attempts to create action on what some stakeholders deem “global challenges” (e.g., see The Global Colloquium of University Presidents), and a recent US-based attempt to create ostensibly global higher education action for global development.

On this latter initiative, deemed the Higher Education Summit for Global Development, I can’t help but think that the cost to organize and operate such a ‘summit’ was significant when compared to the related announcement of “$1 million [644,000 euro] to fund 20 partnership-planning grants of $50,000 to plan long-term collaborations between African and U.S. institutions of higher education“. Money of that scale is characteristically snatched from a dormant account inside some department to produce a ‘deliverable’ and seems somewhat incommensurate (in material and symbolic terms) with the stated ambition of the event, even if it is just the marker of a new phase of action.

The pace of globally-framed higher education and research change was abundantly clear to me last week when I was in Brussels (pictured to the left) meeting with a wide variety of informed and creative stakeholders; stakeholders who are actively creating elements of this new global higher ed/research architecture. The combination of insight and resources was impressive, and another reminder of what happens when states focus on building intellectual infrastructure for the medium to long term.

In this context, today’s entry briefly profiles one new contribution to challenging dominant views on the status quo of thinking about aspects of the globalization of higher education and research, though from the other side of the Atlantic – in the USA.

On 12 June the Rand Corporation released a major report titled U.S. Competitiveness in Science and Technology. The associated press release can be accessed here, and a summary Research Brief here.

This new report is a 2008 “companion report” to the 2007 collection, Perspectives on U.S. Competitiveness in Science and Technology, in which we flagged the Rand Corporation’s inclusion of one chapter by Jonathon Adams, a UK-based private consultant whose firm (Evidence Ltd) provides services in relation to the UK Research Assessment Exercise (RAE).

U.S. Competitiveness in Science and Technology presents findings that challenge notions of a slide in the dominance of the United States in the global science and technology landscape, especially with respect to research. In summary fashion, Rand notes:

Is the United States in danger of losing its competitive edge in science and technology (S&T)? This concern has been raised repeatedly since the end of the Cold War, most recently in a wave of reports in the mid-2000s suggesting that globalization and the growing strength of other nations in S&T, coupled with inadequate U.S. investments in research and education, threaten the United States’ position of leadership in S&T. Galama and Hosek [the Rand authors] examine these claims and contrast them with relevant data, including trends in research and development investment; information on the size, composition, and pay of the U.S. science and engineering workforce; and domestic and international education statistics. They find that the United States continues to lead the world in science and technology and has kept pace or grown faster than other nations on several measurements of S&T performance; that it generally benefits from the influx of foreign S&T students and workers; and that the United States will continue to benefit from the development of new technologies by other nations as long as it maintains the capability to acquire and implement such technologies. However, U.S. leadership in science and technology must not be taken for granted, and Galama and Hosek conclude with recommendations to strengthen the U.S. S&T enterprise, including measures to facilitate the immigration of highly skilled labor and improve the U.S. education system.

Coverage of the report is now emerging in outlets like the Economist, in the general media, and in the blogosphere (e.g., see this critique of the Rand message in the Computing Research Policy blog)

U.S. Competitiveness in Science and Technology is also noteworthy for it is produced by Rand for the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), a relatively sprawling institution as is evident in this organizational diagram:

As the inside page to the report puts it:

The research described in this report was prepared for the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD). The research was conducted in the RAND National Defense Research Institute [NDRI], a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the OSD, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Department of the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community under Contract W74V8H-06-C-0002.

The logic of the OSD funding NDRI-produced research likely relates to the US defense establishment’s concern about emerging science and technology (and research) ‘footprints’ of powers like China, India, and Europe vis a vis intra-US capacities to educate, produce knowledge, and have this knowledge disseminated (and generate effects) at a range of scales and via a variety of channels. Yet the report also seeks to use data and analytical narratives to prick holes in the emerging taken-for-granted assumptions that the era of American hegemony, with respect to global knowledge production, is over. It reminds me, a little, of the informed testimony of Michael S. Teitelbaum, Vice President, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, on 6 November 2007 before the Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation, Committee on Science and Technology, U.S. House of Representatives. Finally, the report is very clear in flagging the dependency of US science and technology capacity, and the US’ global research presence/impact, upon highly educated foreigners.

In an overall sense, then, U.S. Competitiveness in Science and Technology could be read as a detailed and insightful contribution to ongoing deliberations about the scale of US science and technology might, and an effort to reshape the contours of a critically important debate. I’m not sure if it could be classified as a contribution to thinking about “war by other means”, but rather as a reflection of a “new threat environment ” where thinking and analysis focuses on:

[h]ow and in what way do new challenges–from terrorists, insurgents, weapons of mass destruction, and the proliferation of technology–that the United States faces at home and abroad color America´s definition of and approach to national security? How will changes in the international economic, diplomatic, political, and alliance environments affect U.S. interests and capabilities? How will those changes and threats–from states, non–states, and other traditional and non–traditional sources– affect the United States´ ability to engage and project its power?

Regardless of the logics behind it, the report is thought provoking, laden with data and well designed graphic images, and is clearly written.

Finally, readership. I can imagine the current Secretary of Defense quite enjoying this read given that he was most recently President of Texas A&M University, and “also served on the Board of Directors and Executive Committee of the American Council on Education” and “the Board of Directors of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges”. I am not as sure about the previous one, though. If he is still on the OSD mailing list perhaps he’ll be perusing the text for indicators of the declining health of “old Europe”!

Kris Olds

29 June update: This letter to the Economist (26 June 2008) is worth reading:

SIR – Referring to the conclusions of a RAND report on research and development in science and technology, you claimed that fears that America is losing its competitive edge in innovation are “overblown” (“What crisis?”, June 14th). Your evidence is that “America has lots of sources of R&D spending: federal money accounted for only $86 billion of the $288 billion it spent on R&D in 2004” and that “spending on the life sciences is increasing rapidly, a reasonable bet on the future.” The important point to be made here is that the composition of American R&D has changed markedly over the years.

Federal support for basic research at universities in the physical sciences and engineering—the type of research most directly coupled to technological innovation—has withered relative to spending on research in the life sciences and R&D carried out by industry. The increase in privately financed product-development (often the D in R&D) and biomedical research are both good, but neglecting basic research investments of the type that gave us the internet, solid-state electronics and medical imaging is not a recipe for future success.

Given that it typically takes 15 years for new ideas dreamed up in the laboratory to become commercial, America may be losing the technology race even while seeming to remain on top. At the very least, America’s relative position in the world is slipping, which bodes ill for the future economic standing of the United States.

George Scalise
President
Semiconductor Industry Association
San Jose, California

Residential and liberal arts colleges as ammunition in ‘The Global War on Taylorism’?

I continue to be surprised, partly via my intense use of Google Alerts for updates on global higher ed issues, how much thought provoking stuff there is out there betwixt and between ample supplies of detritus.

One of my alerts, today, linked through to a fascinating on-line article titled ‘The Global War on Taylorism’.

Taylorism, for those of you who have not heard of it, is a concept named after Frederick W. Taylor, a mechanical engineer who has been deemed the ‘father of scientific management’. He was the author of the Principles of Scientific Management (1911), which outlines an approach for enhancing economic efficiency via more strategic management practices. Taylorism and the associated concept of Fordism (and Post-Fordism), often go hand in hand. While originally associated with the retooling and scaling up of manufacturing processes, Taylorism has been applied to many other sectors and realms of life, for good and for bad.

While this is not the space for an exposition of Taylorism, or any number of associated concepts, as applied to the management of higher education, it is worth linking through to ‘The Global War on Taylorism’ in the Collegiate Way. The Collegiate Way is run by the evolutionary biologist Dr. Robert J. O’Hara.

This article has been highlighted as we at GlobalHigherEd have been noting the increased interest in establishing new residential colleges, and liberal arts colleges, in a variety of countries that are dominated by standardized public mass higher education institutions. An interest in more nurturing and reflective educational spaces is also emerging in societies (see, for example Hong Hong’s Lee Woo Sing College; Singapore’s new residential colleges, and the city-state’s proposed liberal arts college) where there is pressure to quickly cultivate more creative and critically thinking citizen-subjects. Residential and liberal arts colleges contrast, strikingly so, with mass private for-profit education (the Apollo/Phoenix model), and distance education more generally.

As the Collegiate Way frames it:

[r]esidential colleges originated at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge in Great Britain, and they have long been a feature of higher education in Commonwealth countries. The first American universities to establish residential colleges were Harvard and Yale in the 1930s, and in recent years they have spread to institutions as varied as Murray State University in Kentucky, the University of Miami in Florida, Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University in New Jersey, the University of Central Arkansas, Acadia University in Nova Scotia, the University of the Americas in Mexico, and Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany.

This push could be construed as part of the anti-Taylorist agenda, or (more cynically) as a money making venture, or service differentiation vehicle, to create a new niche in the global higher ed world – analogous to the boutique offerings available 1-2 blocks on either side of Boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris. In reality there will be many shades of grey, and many complexions, with respect to the motives and effectiveness of new residential and liberal arts colleges around the world.

In any case, as the Collegiate Way puts it, a long-term struggle is underway to distort and destabilize existing practices, either through the creation of new higher ed institutions (e.g., Quest University, in Squamish B.C., Canada, which was favourably profiled this week in the Chronicle of Higher Education), or through the insertion of new learning spaces within existing institutions (e.g., Chadbourne Residential College, University of Wisconsin-Madison).

In the end, perhaps:

[t]he Global War on Taylorism will be a long, generational struggle. But in no theater can it be more righteously fought than in education. And in education it should be righteously fought, because students are not fractional Full-time Equivalents or ethno-economic vectors in Complex Systems Theory. They are individuals. Let us, as individuals, rouse and guide their powers of genius. Let us teach them beauty and truth, art and science, and the unquiet minds that have sought beauty and truth throughout history. Let us teach them to be, not parts but persons, not automatons but agents, not types but worlds.

Kris Olds

The NSF’s ‘cool’ project: a charrette assesses interdisciplinary graduate education, with surprising results

kimcoulter.jpgEditor’s note: today’s entry has been written by Kimberly Coulter, the University of Wisconsin-Madison‘s new Worldwide Universities Network (WUN) administrative coordinator. Kim will be developing entries for GlobalHigherEd from time to time, which we are very happy about given her knowledge base. Today’s entry links most closely to be previous entries by Gisèle Yasmeen (‘Articulating the value proposition of the Humanities’), Barbara Czarniawska (‘The challenges of creating hybrid disciplines and careers: a view from Sweden’), and Susan Robertson (‘A creative combination: adding MBAs and art schools together to increase innovation’).

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‘Interdisciplinarity’ in higher education is not only ‘in’—it’s institutionalized. In the last ten years, collaboration across traditional disciplinary boundaries has been valorized in university strategic plans and research foundation calls for proposals. The buzzword promises to spark scientific breakthroughs and ignite innovations. But how?

Based on the assumption that interdisciplinary collaboration can be trained, the US National Science Foundation (NSF) has made a formidable investment in its Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program since 1997. Now at 125 sites, IGERT programs offer students interdisciplinary training along with $30,000/year stipends, tuition, and fees for five years of a doctoral program in the sciences. The IGERT program aims:

to catalyze a cultural change in graduate education, for students, faculty, and institutions, by establishing innovative new models for graduate education and training in a fertile environment for collaborative research that transcends traditional disciplinary boundaries.

rhoten4small1.jpgBut what, exactly, does such a fertile environment look like? At a University of Wisconsin-Madison conference on The Future of Interdisciplinarity, a provocative keynote address from Diana Rhoten challenged assumptions. Rhoten is Director of the Knowledge Institutions program at the Social Sciences Research Council, and is currently on loan to the NSF as program director in the areas of Virtual Organizations and Learning & Workforce Development for the Office of Cyberinfrastructure. In a previous study of interdisciplinary research centers and programs across higher education (the article can be downloaded here), Rhoten had found that many “interdisciplinary” initiatives failed to reconceptualize disciplinary traditional modes into an integrative model. She observed that real collaboration—defined as working together from start to finish—was rare.

At the Madison conference, Rhoten reported results of a new NSF-sponsored micro-study testing for effects of IGERT training on student performance. The study used an innovative—even ‘cool’—methodology: 48 IGERT and non-IGERT students at early and late stages of their graduate programs were invited to participate in an environmental research design ‘charrette’ weekend at the Snowbird ski resort in the mountains (see below) of Utah. Only after students’ arrival did researchers inform them that the true object of study would be their collaborative processes. Students were grouped into interdisciplinary groups of six: two groups each of junior IGERT students, senior IGERT students, junior non-IGERT students, and senior non-IGERT students. Each group was tasked with working together to produce and present a seven page research proposal on ecosystem services. Students were allowed to do Internet research but could not make outside contacts.

snowbird.jpgAs the students worked, observers made narrative field notes on how they evaluated each other’s ideas and used each others’ talents and skills (both participants and observers were aware of the group’s IGERT identity). At the end of the weekend, ten blind experts from different sectors assessed the groups’ proposals and presentations on intellectual merit and broader impact per NSF standards, as well as disciplinary and interdisciplinary quality. So although this study yielded rich observational data, these data relied on an undeniably small sample of students working with peers at the training stage of their careers.

Still, the results are surprising. Overall, the experts were astonished by the high quality research design proposals. Yet junior IGERT students outperformed the others in every way, followed by the non-IGERT students. Rhoten suggested that as students’ GRE scores had been considered, this disparity could not have been an artifact of previous ability. She summarized the observations thus: the best junior IGERT team had an optimistic leader with gentle critics, and had framed the task as research. By contrast, the senior IGERT students (whose proposal and presentation received the lowest scores) framed the task as collaboration. The senior IGERT students assumed they would perform well, and appeared to enjoy being studied. They discussed how to cope with conflict, yet couldn’t get traction, and their results were vague and incomplete.

She does not conclude that IGERTs are a misinvestment, but rather that these results beg questions: Did overconfidence and familiarity poison the senior IGERT students? Had IGERT training replaced students’ assertiveness and results-orientation with a focus on inclusivity and the cooperative process? These questions, she suggested, may guide us to an improved IGERT program structure. The study’s most striking result was the powerful impression the charrette activity made on both students and researchers. Rhoten beamed about the charrette as a both a methodology and as a learning tool; students, she said, raved about the learning experience. Rhoten ventured that perhaps IGERTs should not take the form of five-year programs, but rather be intensive, collaborative periodic experiences with space and time in between them—like the charrette.

This insight about the charrette is powerful because it reminds us of interdisciplinarity’s goal. The charrette mimics the deadline-driven, temporary, problem-oriented projects for which scientists are being trained. ‘Interdisciplinarity’ is, in its essence, the modus operandi of the flexible, post-Fordist ‘project’ unit of economic action. In their 1976 research on theater production, Goodman and Goodman (reference below) explain a “project” as involving a:

set of diversely skilled people working together on a complex task over a limited period of time…. [especially] in cases where the task is complex and cannot be decomposed in detail autonomously ex ante ‘members must keep interrelating with one another in trying to arrive at viable solutions’.

To trade ideas productively, each participant must bring knowledge from a “home base” and stimulating ideas to the project network. The challenge for institutions is to find a balance between the stability of an institutional context and the rigidity of institutionalized “lock-in.” As economic geographer Gernot Grabher argues in Regional Studies (reference below), “transient collaborative arrangements and more enduring organizational and institutional arrangements” are interdependent—“‘Cool’ projects, indeed, rely on ‘boring’ institutions”.

Clearly, the NSF has the capacity to impact not only the scientific training, but also the attitudes and professional orientations of new generations of scientists. Effective interdisciplinary collaboration needs individuals with rigorous disciplinary grounding, creativity, and communication skills; these require a mix of stability, resources, and conventional training. Yet the current IGERT model, which values the institutionalization of five-year programs emphasizing collaboration, may not be the most effective way to cultivate flexibility and resourcefulness. As the Snowbird charrette demonstrates, perhaps more ‘cool’ projects—transient, face-to-face project-events in inspiring locations—can set the scene for successful learning and quality scientific production.

Reference

R. A. Goodman and L. P. Goodman, “Some management issues in temporary systems: a study of professional development and manpower—the theatre case,” Administrative Science Quarterly 21 (1976): 494-501, esp. 494 and 495, as cited in G. Grabher, “Cool projects, boring institutions: temporary collaboration in social context,” Regional Studies 36.3 (2002): 205–14, esp. 207-8.

Kimberly Coulter

Articulating the value proposition of the Humanities

gyasmeenpic.jpgEditor’s note: this guest entry was kindly produced by Gisèle Yasmeen, Vice-President, Partnerships, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). SSHRC is an arm’s-length federal agency that promotes and supports university-based research and training in the social sciences and humanities. In this position, Gisèle is a key member of the senior management team, responsible for leading and directing partnership development and knowledge mobilization — an important pillar of SSHRC’s strategic direction. She also oversees the management of the suite of SSHRC targeted programs, including joint initiatives, Community-University Research Alliances, the International Opportunities Fund, strategic knowledge clusters, and strategic programming. People with particular interest in the theme of this entry should note that the Sixth International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities will be held in Fatih University, Istanbul, Turkey 15-18 July 2008.

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Discussions over the last several decades in both North America and Europe have questioned the ‘place’ of the humanities particularly with respect to science and technology and questions have been posed regarding the value and ‘usefulness’ of liberal arts education and scholarship. Similar discussions have taken place in GlobalHigherEd on the relationship between the Fine Arts, Business Schools and the ‘innovation’ agenda. A recent piece in Times Higher Education entitled ‘Soul Searching’ nicely lays out the crux of the matter, namely, clearly articulating an effective value proposition for the humanities without falling into the trap of facile utilitarianism. Matthew Reisz explains:

There is no shortage of people wanting to study the humanities, so the only real test of the ‘crisis’ is whether academics can offer compelling arguments for the value of what they are teaching, in both senses of that phrase – the importance of the subject matter and the positive effect it can have on students’ lives.

As scholars such as Chad Gaffield and David Bentley have articulated in several papers over the years, it is essential that the foundations of the value proposition for the humanities be balanced between articulating the intrinsic as well as the extrinsic worth of the liberal arts project. This balance, and the link between both types of value, is needed to ensure that the intellectual contribution of humanities scholarship is not lost to potential audiences.

Humanities scholars are well aware of the intrinsic value of what they do. Indeed, a major focus of humanities scholarship is the study of values in and of themselves. The challenge is for the uninitiated understanding of what is often taken for granted, namely, the fundamental importance of languages, literatures and other narratives/texts, as well as philosophical and historical considerations as central to the framing of human consciousness and intellectual activity. Words and narratives have power, enable us to give meaning and are rooted in culture, beliefs and value-systems.

For example, women’s suffrage or the abolition of slavery did not emerge overnight but were the result of the articulation of values juxtaposed with various texts including fiction, essays, legal treatises and other uses of rhetoric which eventually resulted in entire societies being persuaded of the need to change their belief systems, mental models, governance and modes of production.

Humanities scholarship, rather than being a disciplinary exercise, is about approaching knowledge in a certain way; one that privileges a close interpretive examination of languages, meanings, values, culture and aesthetics. Hence, the so-called ancient ‘battle’ between ‘arts’ and ‘science’ is, in many ways, a spurious one. We ought to, instead, see these approaches as complementary types of human intellectual activity.

As in renaissance times, a well rounded, educated human being ought to be knowledgeable about a variety of areas and, of course, be skilled as thinker, communicator and leader. This brings us to the question of the extrinsic value of humanities education and scholarship. To be sure, the value-proposition does tend to be defined in these terms (or not) by the media, governments (including granting agencies) and, sometimes, universities. The ‘development of talent’ is a crucial argument to be made for a humanities education, which is an essential building block for success across academic, public, private and not for profit sectors.

Interesting trends to note in the Humanities

There are three profound trends to note in the humanities that warrant being mentioned as they provide concrete examples of the value-addition of the humanities in far-reaching and innovative ways:

  1. Expansion of the traditional ‘western’ humanities canon: As scholars such as Leslie Monkman and Sachidananda Mohanty have been writing for many years, the development of a corpus of work which ought to be known by the “educated” is a moving target wrought with political and historical implications. We are fortunate now that the boundaries around what ought to or can be studied and known in the humanities have expanded considerably over the past thirty or forty years resulting in a cornucopia of literature, theatre, poetry and other texts that have been (re)’discovered’, (re)interpreted and made more available to a wider audience. This expansion is thanks, in part, to the growth in information and communication technologies, which brings us to our next example.
  2. Digital humanities: the rapid advancement in computer technology, in particular the internet and the World Wide Web, has led to ‘mass collaboration’ of a scale and complexity never before seen in the humanities. The use of new technologies in the humanities increases the capacity for scholars to do their work more quickly while still allowing for the subtle ‘layering’ of analysis, interpretation and argumentation. It has thus also resulted in humanities scholarly work being made accessible to a much wider audience – including those outside the ‘typical’ humanities disciplines and, indeed, those operating in sectors of society other than academe. This brings us to our final example of exciting developments in the humanities.
  3. Campus-Community linkages: When Earl Shorris piloted the first Clemente course in the humanities for low-income participants at the Roberto Clemente Family Guidance Center on East 13th Street in Manhattan, in 1995, an international trend was born. An article on his work in Harper’s magazine inspired students around the world. Examples include the University of British Columbia’s Humanities 101 initiative, the University of Ottawa’s (St. Paul’s Campus) Discovery University, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Humanities Exposed (HEX) Program [logo below]. Similar, in some ways, to the Philosophers’ cafés which emerged around the same time, the Clemente course and its offshoots provide renewed vigour for a humanities contribution to the campus-community dialogue.

hexlogo.jpgIt is a thoroughly exciting time to take an interest in the humanities. To be certain, there are challenges associated with maintaining and increasing public and private resources for the humanities to thrive. However, the cornerstone to establishing a successful strategy, as Mary Crossan argues, is the development of a solid value proposition. This includes effective rhetorical strategies for those committed to the ‘interpretive and linguistic turn’ – as part of a framework for strategic analysis and action – explaining why their scholarship and teaching are so very important to various constituencies across the public, private and not-for-profit sectors with whom partnerships and alliances are essential.

Gisèle Yasmeen