Interdisciplinarity in Science and Engineering: Academia in Transition


Research institutions are experiencing a surge of innovative interdisciplinary initiatives aimed at bringing together students, postdocs, and faculty from different departments to solve complex problems in ways that they have never tried before. From Stanford University's fledgling Bio-X program to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT's) 17-year-old Biotechnology Process Engineering Center (BPEC), interdisciplinarity may well be the wave of the future.

At least it's the wave of today. "Interdisciplinarity is a hot topic," says Irwin Feller, a visiting senior scientist at AAAS. Nils Hasselmo, president of the Association of American Universities (AAU) agrees: "Obviously, this is an area that is affecting many universities ? interdisciplinarity is running rampant."

But, says Feller, it's nothing new. Interdisciplinarity has been around for a long time, depending on the field and the institution. In fact, he notes, it is the way that many disciplines, particularly the life sciences, naturally evolve.

At its simplest, interdisciplinarity "brings together different disciplines to address complex questions," Feller explains. But rarely is it so simple, especially in science and engineering. Over time, integrating the methodologies and analytical approaches of different disciplines usually "leads to a new conceptualization of what the field is, and there is a change in the way in which a problem is defined." The theoretical framework of the disciplines shifts in a fundamental way, and a new interdisciplinary field emerges. For example, biochemistry and neuroscience both emerged as interdisciplinary fields that eventually grew to become their own mainstream disciplines.

Moreover, for a number of institutions, interdisciplinarity is how they have structured themselves all along. Universities that consider themselves too small to excel in any single discipline often "see this as their best strategy for achieving high status," says Feller.

So if interdisciplinarity has been the natural, or institutional, course of things all along, why the buzz today? Most of the flurry of activity is in the life sciences, where, says Feller, "you have to be interdisciplinary to be world class." The life sciences may simply be at a point in their natural evolution where ideas, techniques, tools, and people from different biological disciplines have to come together in order to move ahead.

And the coming together isn't just a virtual occurrence. Stanford's Bio-X program will be housed in a new center slated to be ready by next summer. The 245,000-square-foot set of buildings will house 40 faculty labs from some 20 different departments. Last summer, construction began on the Penn State campus for a new life science building to house the recently established interdisciplinary Huck Institute for the Life Sciences.

But what many consider to be one of the best interdisciplinary programs today is in engineering, not the life sciences. Says Feller, NSF's Engineering Research Centers (ERC) program is "one of the most creative interdisciplinarity programs out there." The first ERC, including MIT's BPEC, were established in 1985. BPEC originated as a mammalian cell bioprocessing center, explains ERC program official Lynn Preston. Before BPEC, scientists were using bacteria to work on recombinant DNA. A team of scientists--biologists and engineers--was brought together to figure out how to process mammalian cells. But it wasn't an easy integration. The engineers had been trained to make things that function, whereas the biologists had been trained to discover new things. It took 3 to 4 years, Preston says, until "the biologists began to think like engineers, and vice versa. That's real interdisciplinarity."

Now, there are 20 ERCs spread throughout the United States, and at least two new ones are in line to be established this year. Preston attributes the program's success to the review committees, which push to ensure that the centers are truly interdisciplinary. Plus, the type of systems-engineering research that the program sponsors is, by its very nature, interdisciplinary. As Preston explains, "Technology knows no discipline. Technology knows a function. You have to drive that technology and then find the discipline to do it."

Generally, Preston says, there is a lot more interdisciplinarity on campuses now than there was 10 years ago. This is partly due to the influx of new funding. The NSF, says Preston, "is saying 'interdisciplinarity is important.' That creates a ripple effect on campus, and some of the barriers break down."

Other NSF interdisciplinary-center programs include the Science and Technology Centers program, founded in 1987; the Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers program (1994); and the Nanoscale Science and Engineering Centers program (2001).

NSF isn't the only one funding interdisciplinary research. Stanford's Bio-X program, for example, was launched in 1999 by a $150 million donation from an information- technology entrepreneur; another $60 million was anonymously donated a year later.

Despite the new funding and a strong push to open disciplinary borders, there is still resistance. "How much of all of this rhetoric will take hold? It's not clear how deep the commitment is," says Feller. Many people think that "research proceeds better, faster, and deeper when you specialize," associating "disciplinarity with rigor and interdisciplinarity with dilettantism," he adds.

Plus, says Feller, "interdisciplinarity often requires a change in the way the university is managed and the way resources are allocated." Loosening the borders between departments decentralizes authority and gives the faculty more flexibility, making it more difficult for administrators to control resources and agendas. "You run into power games," he says, "and [the] faculty often gets mixed messages."

To address these issues, AAU has organized a task force to make recommendations to its 62 member universities on the organizational structure necessary for accommodating interdisciplinarity. The recommendations, which Hasselmo says should be ready by fall 2003, will provide solutions to budget, personnel, and other practical hurdles that make it difficult for people from different departments to collaborate.

In the meantime, Feller says, "interdisciplinarity is in the air." Students, postdocs, and faculty are bustling to cross the cultural divides that once separated them from their disciplinary neighbors, near and far.

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