I just returned from an experiment masquerading as a conference with the lofty title, "Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research and Education," or FIRE. Co-hosted by the Colorado Initiative in Molecular Biotechnology at University of Colorado-Boulder and AAAS, FIRE lit a few exchanges if for no other reason that life scientists seldom interact with social scientists for a day at a time. Nor are those interactions -- short talks in panels -- recorded for assembly in a thematic report (that will appear later this year).
My participation in this experiment was ignited long ago, circa 1984, when I co-edited a collection (now out of print) titled Interdisciplinary Analysis and Research (Lomond). My Georgia Tech colleagues and I wondered about this multi-syllabic word for describing collaboration in a range of disciplines. We retrieved and commented on examples from various literatures claiming "interdisciplinarity" to develop a more systematic sense of what these research teams thought was their modus operandi and how it set them apart from conventional scientific collaborations.
In the two generations since, the word "interdisciplinary" -- and its sister prefixes "multi" and "trans" -- have come into if not vogue, then common discourse in the literature. At FIRE, many senior biologists from research universities presented case examples of their programs, institutes, centers, networks, and other modes of research organization that foster interdisciplinary research and education -- Stanford's Bio-X, Caltech's Beckman Institute, and Princeton's Integrated Introductory Science Curriculum, to name just three.
As one of the social scientists in attendance, I observed a cadre of brilliant and visionary scientists grappling with the challenges and opportunities inherent in the modern university. Their efforts became vignettes of mostly unyielding structures: tensions between top-down administrative process and bottom-up faculty-driven innovations in how to teach, mentor, empower, and nudge disciplines to embrace the complexities of 21st century problem-solving. Above all, the examples blurred the boundaries of research and teaching.
The issues confronted at FIRE constitute a catalogue deserving of more dedicated time and exchange: how to fund, identify, measure, evaluate, reward, scale, balance, and reward interdisciplinarity. In short, this conference was a FIRE-starter: whether it is seen as an isolated bonfire of intention and novelty or a raging blaze sweeping across the disciplinary landscape in our greatest universities only time will tell. How many of us choose to participate in FIRE 2.0 will indicate just how experimental both the phenomenon and the conference can be.