The issues facing modern society such as climate change, poverty, and the global economy have become more complex over time. To address those challenges, researchers need to work together, across disciplines and sectors - but universities, the engines of research, aren't set up to support this kind of work.
The University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs and Institute on the Environment, along with Duke University, are leading a new, multi-university project that will explore how to make interdisciplinary research more common and more effective.
The two-year research project is funded with a $500,000 NAKFI Challenge grant from the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative, and includes 13 universities from across the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. It is one of three winners of the new competition, chosen from a field of 79 proposals.
"Conventional academic systems reward individual work over collaboration, and conformity over risk-taking," says Bonnie Keeler, Humphrey School assistant professor and the leader of the project. "Students are hungry for opportunities to work across boundaries, and faculty and researchers want their scholarship to matter in the real world."
Keeler adds that the University of Minnesota is an appropriate choice to lead this project, due to its commitment to interdisciplinary research through the Grand Challenges initiative, the Institute on the Environment, and other efforts.
The project will use sustainability science as the focus, since that emerging field of study already requires an interdisciplinary approach spanning natural and social sciences, and an understanding not only of the natural world but also of human interactions with it.
"Society needs science - and scientists - more than ever, because we need knowledge to confront our greatest societal and environmental challenges," says Jessica Hellmann, director of the University's Institute on the Environment. "But it takes a special kind of scientist, one who can work side by side with society, to bring about a better future. This project convenes the organizations and leaders who are creating and supporting this new kind of creator and doer. This group can change how science is done, why it is done, and for whom."
Goal is Systemic Change
The new network will explore how institutions are addressing three key challenges to interdisciplinary research: measuring impact, supporting students, and fostering co-development.
It will look at metrics universities could use, for example, in staff tenure policies or measures of student achievement that would be suitable in an interdisciplinary environment; how research questions and methodologies can be co-designed with the communities, organizations, and agencies that will ultimately put the research into action; and how to create programs that train students to work in interdisciplinary ways.
Although more universities are adopting interdisciplinary approaches to research by creating institutes, graduate programs, and other mechanisms, Keeler notes those often are stand-alone programs that don't lead to larger systemic changes.
"Our project aims to change that," Keeler says. "By finding out what works and identifying best practices, the network will help organizations move from experimenting with interdisciplinary approaches to embedding it as part of long-term institutional reform."
The partners in the project, recognized as leaders in interdisciplinary research, are:
- University of Minnesota, Office of the Provost
- Institute on the Environment, University of Minnesota
- Duke University, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies
- University of California, Los Angeles, Institute of the Environment and Sustainability
- University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute
- University of Hawaii, Biocultural Initiative of the Pacific
- McGill School of Environment, McGill Sustainability Systems Initiative
- University of Oxford
- The Natural Capital Project: Stanford University, the Nature Conservancy, University of Minnesota, World Wildlife Fund
- Cornell University, Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future
- University of Georgia, Integrative Conservation PhD Program (ICON)
- University of Michigan, MUSE Michigan University-wide Sustainability and Environment
- University of Washington, Center for Creative Conservation
- Interdisciplinari-Tea (IDTEA) Network: Stanford University, UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz