I recently attended the ‘World Universities Forum’ in Davos. The conference was attempting to provide a discussion forum on the state of higher education and knowledge generation to parallel the World Economic Forums review of economics and wealth generation.
Whilst the meeting has a long way to go to match the profile of the WEF, there were some interesting sessions – particularly on how different institutions are tackling the challenge of interdisciplinarity.
There was a consensus that we need a new era of ‘problem centred’ knowledge generation to tackle complex issues such as climate change and sustainable development. Universities will be in danger of making themselves irrelevant if they are not able to tackle these issues and given this, more interdisciplinary research is needed.
But it was also clear that our present academic system functions along disciplinary lines. All our rewards and incentives work in this way and this seems to be the case internationally.
Linda Katehi, Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign spoke about the need for academics to feel respected by their disciplinary colleagues. Those whose work becomes more interdisciplinary feel that they are loosing their peer group. She felt such human factors were one of the main barriers to interdisciplinarity.
Eva Pell, Vice President for Research at Penn State University gave a slightly different perspective and spoke about the prevalence of new interdisciplinary research centres in US universities. At Penn State interdisciplinary research units account for more than one-third of their research programs and they have invested considerably in new buildings for research across disciplines such as the Huck Institute of Life Sciences.
But Pell felt that success at Penn State did not come from new research buildings and centres. These often caused friction between departments who felt themselves diminished when funding streams were given to such new centres. Success had been achieved at Penn State when faculties were given shared financial ownership of interdisciplinary initiatives.
So what lessons can the UK learn from how US universities are tackling interdisciplinarity? Is there a danger the UK will go down the road of investing millions in new interdisciplinary buildings, rather than examining how institutional and cultural change can be achieved?
I am sure that some new centres are needed in areas where the old disciplinary divides now make no sense. An example of this might be the new Manchester Interdisciplinary Biocentre. Their website tells us that “the architecture of the building reflects the needs of interdisciplinary science, featuring open-plan, multifunctional laboratories as well as generously-proportioned meeting and atrium areas.”
It would be interesting to hear from those who work there if this new building has truly changed the way they work. In any case, UK universities and research funders must look deeper at their infrastructures and cultures to really create an uninhibited interdisciplinary research base.