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Experts at U.S. Symposium Urge Efforts to Encourage and Support Interdisciplinary Research

A multi-disciplinary team of educators, program managers, policy experts and researchers from across the nation convened recently in Boulder, Colorado, to collaborate on a common goal: how to make interdisciplinary research and education work.

Scientists from a range of disciplines—biology, computer science, statistics, and sociology, to name a few—have made great strides in tackling complex medical problems through interdisciplinary collaboration in the last couple of decades. But experts at the two-day symposium said that interdisciplinary research will have to be taken to new levels to address exceedingly difficult challenges such as autism, infectious diseases, and cancer. These conditions don’t fit neatly into any one scientific discipline, and they may be influenced by an individual’s genetic makeup, environmental surroundings, and even immediate societal influences.


Tom Cech | Photo by Patrick Campbell

“Many of the most interesting problems can only be answered through inter- or multi-disciplinary attacks on the problem,” said AAAS CEO Alan Leshner, executive publisher of Science, at the national symposium “Science on FIRE—Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research and Education.”


Nearly 150 speakers and other participants attended the 30-31 March symposium, organized by the Colorado Initiative in Molecular Biotechnology (CIMB), led by Nobel laureate Tom Cech, and by AAAS. While they sought to identify and address the obstacles to dissolving disciplinary boundaries, leaders from several of the country’s top interdisciplinary programs in the biosciences also shared successful strategies shown to overcome some of those obstacles.

Interdisciplinary research stretches the boundaries of the multi-disciplinary paradigm, where experts from different fields work toward a common goal within the boundaries of their own discipline. Researchers found that sticking within the confines of their own discipline limited progress on convoluted biological problems, but bringing themselves to the fringes of their own fields to form new concepts and ideas, even new disciplines or “inter-disciplines” such as bioinformatics, began to break down walls in the realm of the biosciences.

Interdisciplinary collaborations have spawned such advances as the genomics revolution, where tools and practices from biology, engineering, computer science, and many other fields interlace to make large-scale sequencing of the human genome both possible and affordable. Similarly, teasing meaning from the vast quantities of accumulated genetic information requires collaboration between scientists from an equally diverse array of fields.

“The need for interdisciplinary approaches has increased tremendously,” said Leshner, “The problem frankly is, although we have been discussing it for 40 years, collectively we never seem to get it right…. If we could come up with a series of distilled lessons learned, principles, and action steps that could be taken, then I think we could make tremendous progress.”

Setting up and sustaining successful interdisciplinary programs requires having strong leaders, building research teams and securing funding—some of the same criteria for setting up single-discipline programs. But in universities, Cech said, tenure systems that discourage collaboration combined with traditional career and reward structures hinder the progress of interdisciplinary programs.

Not least of those challenges is that of securing and then sustaining funding. Because interdisciplinary research can be higher risk than science-as-usual, nobody wants to invest in it except people and universities that understand the nature of discovery, said Carla Shatz, director of Bio-X at Stanford University.

The risks associated with both funding and initiating interdisciplinary research projects can be mitigated, however, said Cech. “You can’t predict in advance what project or approach is going to be transformative for science,” he said. “But you can create systems, institutions and lower barriers in such a way that you can nurture innovation and give people a fighting chance to make those transformative changes.”


David Botstein | Photo by Patrick Campbell

Second only to the topic of funding was that of hiring faculty for programs. Several speakers emphasized the importance of hiring researchers motivated to pursue interdisciplinary research. “We wanted people who were excited about collaborating with people very different from themselves,” said David Botstein, director of the Lewis-Siglar Institute for Integrative Genomics at Princeton University.


‘Go for the younger faculty’ appeared as a common mantra. “Creative, original and transformative research is often initiated early in one’s career,” said James Gentile, president and CEO of the Research Corporation for Science Advancement. “Younger researchers are hungry dogs—they are looking for that next adventure.”


L. Michelle Bennett | Photo by Patrick Campbell

Programs have to protect these young faculty members, however, because participation in collaborations and team science can be viewed by early-career researchers as taking a risk and possibly impacting the chances of getting tenure, said L. Michelle Bennett, deputy scientific director of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Collaboration and teamwork are the characteristics of interdisciplinary research, Bennett said. “But, in terms of achieving tenure, independence is a key factor. We need to learn how to recognize independent intellectual contributions in the context of a team.”


Collaboration can also hinder researchers’ ability to build the necessary publication list, said Shatz. Even researchers who successfully collaborate can still find themselves in the middle of a long line of authorship, she said.

Solutions to these dilemmas could be as simple as establishing a written agreement, in advance of hiring or the collaboration, to set expectations for collaborative work and build trust, Bennett said. Botstein concurred: “The terms on which you bring young people in are very critical,” he said. “It has to be very explicit.”

Choosing team members requires good leadership, and the necessity of having effective leaders along with a clear mission and a sound business model resonated throughout the conference.


James Collins | By Jane Palmer for AAAS

“You never want to forget your core values,” said James Collins, former director of the Directorate for Biological Sciences at the National Science Foundation and the Virginia M. Ullman Professor of Natural History and Environment at Arizona State University. “Unless you are very clear-headed about the value system that is motivating you, you’ll immediately get off course.”


To ensure the future success of interdisciplinary research programs, Botstein urged that institutes should educate students in more than one discipline, especially at the undergraduate level.

“Part of the challenge with interdisciplinary research is that we don’t even speak a common language,” he said. If, however, students studied several disciplines early in their career, they would become fluent in the languages of other disciplines, he said. “It is the students now who are going to be the first real interdisciplinary generation.”

New graduate programs also are embracing the shift toward learning more than one field. As an example, Cech cited the University of Colorado-Boulder’s new Interdisciplinary Quantitative Biology (IQ Biology) Ph.D. program. In that program, he explained, “students will work together in a first-year interdisciplinary course and then obtain in-depth training in one of the disciplines.”

Another encouraging note came from a AAAS evaluation of the National Science Foundation’s 17 Science and Technology Centers, which are by nature interdisciplinary. The report, released earlier this year, found that the centers are “incubators for minority talent,” attracting a more diverse student population in terms of race, ethnicity and gender, said Daryl Chubin, director of the AAAS Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity.

The two days of discussion raised some common challenges, but proposed solutions were as diverse as the attendees’ fields of discipline. “This conference was intended to create a community to look at interdisciplinarity,” Chubin said in summing up. “My conclusion at this point is that we have a lot more work to do.”

The Science Policy Programs division at AAAS will prepare a set of “best practices” in the form of a practical guide for scholars, administrators and finders who are starting, managing and supporting interdisciplinary research and education programs.


Learn more about “Science on FIRE: Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research and Education”