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

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


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.


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

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