Promoting collisions between disciplines to foster new approaches to biomedical problems

Throughout the 2009-2010 academic year a large number of us at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are engaging in some conversations via a Promoting Collisions dinner series.  The dinner series is primarily sponsored by the people behind the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery complex; a large new public-private structure that is emerging from the (now) frozen ground in Madison, WI.  As noted on the Wisconsin Institutes‘ website:

The institutes will build on the long tradition of interdisciplinary research at UW–Madison. Today’s problems relating to human health and welfare are more complex than one individual, one department or one institution can solve. The twin research institutes will encourage the kind of cross-pollination needed to attack these problems and the building’s Town Center will serve as a vibrant crossroads for researchers to meet, hold joint conferences and participate in collaborative events that will extend the research of the efforts at the institutes beyond the facility itself. One of the project’s key objectives is to foster new approaches to biomedical problems at the convergence of various disciplines, including the arts, business, education, humanities, law, social sciences  and more.

The Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery is also involved in sponsoring a variety of other initiatives (e.g., the symposium advertised in the poster above) on our campus prior to the opening of the building in fall of 2010.

Today’s entry is a photo-oriented one; images taken during a stroll around the building a few days ago in the -19 C weather (when my hands nearly froze).  I wonder if interdisciplinary conversations and disciplinary ‘collisions’ are enabled or constrained by cold weather?  If they are constrained, what hope does the University of Alberta have seeing that it is -45 C in Edmonton today!

More seriously, the Promoting Collisions conversations are fascinating. It is also very interesting to see the shape, in terms of design and programming, that this new ‘knowledge space’ is being formed into to facilitate hoped for breakthroughs at the intersection of disciplines like computer science or mathematics and biology.

Debates about the value and effects of ‘interdisciplinarity’ are sure to continue, as exemplified by Jerry A. Jacob’s recent piece (‘Interdisciplinary hype‘) in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Yet such debates are likely to be grounded in new forms of empirical reality when complexes like the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery are completed, and strategically designed on-site ‘collisions’ begin to occur, leaving a mark of one form or another.

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’).


‘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.


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

The challenges of creating hybrid disciplines and careers: a view from Sweden

bcportrait.jpgEditor’s note: this guest entry has been kindly prepared by Barbara Czarniawska, Swedish Research Council and Malmsten Foundation Chair of Management Studies, Gothenburg Research Institute, University of Gothenburg, Sweden. Professor Czarniawska (pictured to the left) is one of the world’s leading management scholars, and via an approach to knowledge production that engages deeply with scholars in a myriad of other disciplines/fields including anthropology, cultural studies, geography, law, planning, and sociology. Barbara’s entry in GlobalHigherEd focuses on the transformation and institutionalization of “hybrid disciplines” and careers, an implicit and explicit objective frequently associated with the construction of new knowledge/spaces for the global knowledge economy. A fuller version of today’s entry is titled ‘On creole researchers, hybrid disciplines and pidgin writing’, and is available in INTER: A European Cultural Studies Conference in Sweden, Linköping University Electronic Press (2007).


It has ordinarily been assumed that the strength of a scientific discipline resides in its purity and integration, in its distinctness. Recently, however, contrasting opinions have emerged: that the strength of a discipline, at least in social sciences, is connected to its richness, plurality and the flexibility of its borders. Clifford Geertz in anthropology, Richard Rorty in philosophy, and Richard Harvey Brown in sociology were among the proponents of such an attitude. As my doctoral students would say, this is all very good for such big names. But how does university everyday practice look like? Is it possible to have a “creolized” professional career, are hybrid disciplines viable and what kind of language would they use to communicate the results?

bczarinterdisc.jpgA demand for “creolized scholars” emerged a long time ago, approximately when the mass university became a fact of life. Specialist modules can be easily standardized and therefore equally easily repeated in different places, but their product is a graduate who knows all the relevant modules, not an educated person. The new European universities created in the 1960s and 1970s (Lancaster, Karlrühe, Linköping, Bielefeld) were seriously considering the changing demands of the labor market. In Linköping, which is the university I know best among those, “hybrid departments” have been created, where scholars from diverse disciplines were to collaborate on studying “themes” judged important to society. Some still exist: Tema T (technology), Tema V (water) etc. Thus the eventual problems of creolized careers has been solved by the creation of hybrid disciplines, but this solution has opened the door to still new problems.

The first of those was easy to predict: the employers (that is, the very same people who tend to complain that the division of university education in disciplines has nothing to do with division of labor in practice) complained that they had never heard of people specialized in “technology” or “water”. Apparently, it was much better to employ graduates in sociology or business administration and then grumble about their lack of practical skills. The new solutions needed time, adjustment, experience and new vocabularies in order to demonstrate the advantages of “hybrid disciplines”. In the meantime, old universities, always wary of the new arrivals, exploited their advantages by offering graduates educated in the old manner. The solution was then promoted one stage up, to the doctoral level. The graduates in sociology, anthropology, and business administration took research courses within “Tema T“, in order to study science and technology.

The resistance came also from other elements of the dominant institutional order. Research in Sweden is mostly externally financed – by state, municipal, regional and many private foundations. Each foundation has its scientific committee, which is divided into subgroups – thematic or multidisciplinary – composed of representatives of different disciplines. The procedure is usually the same: at the first round, the most interesting research projects are individuated among applications. The transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary projects are to be preferred. The second step consists in counting money: it is usually in short supply. The third step is the decisive one: some projects needed to be sacrificed. How to make a choice between loyalty to Science, which would favor hybrid projects, or to your own Discipline, which gave you a mandate to be there in the first place?

The third problem was common to the members of the committee and the scholars within “Themes”. How to compare an anthropological research project with an economics one? How to communicate within a project that gathers representatives of different disciplines? Either to trust the competence of the colleague from another discipline without pretending to understand it, or to try to find a common language, and if necessary, create a new vocabulary adapted to the project at hand. There is no way for everybody to learn enough about other disciplines, no matter how interesting and relevant. A practical solution to these problems consists in the specialists trying to simplify their communications, and the non-specialists attempting to learn the key terms of the specialist jargon. The result is a pidgin, long known as “a trade language”. The purists are shocked: is this not the way to the impoverishment of scientific language, with its subtleties and enormous efforts aiming at finding “proper names” for everything? The rest of us are hopeful. Talk to each other we must, no matter how many translations need to be done. The future will show if this creolization and hybridization is a temporary state on the way to a new disciplinary order, or if we can live with its benevolent chaos and unavoidable problems quite well.

Barbara Czarniawska