By Khaled Adjerid

Depth and breadth: Interdisciplinary education and research in Europe

 

What does it mean to get interdisciplinary and who stands to benefit?
Interdisciplinary learning and research began with the earliest of philosophers and scientists. When those fortunate enough to go out and learn began their educational journey, they did so learning the arts of mathematics, physics, biology, literature, philosophy and in some cases religion and politics (1). They were well rounded and had a broader understanding of the world and the problems that plagued it. They were positioned to approach problems from many different points of view and were able to see many solutions. This is the nature of interdisciplinarity.

To be interdisciplinary, though it’s definition may vary slightly depending on who you ask, is to move away from the disciplinary silos and seeking to synthesize the knowledge and expertise of many fields and disciplines. This is all to achieve the following benefits (1):

  • Answer complex questions
  • Address broad issues
  • Explore relationship between disciplines
  • Solve problems beyond the scope of single disciplinary silos
  • Achieve a sense of unity of all human knowledge

Interdisciplinary research can pose many challenges. One of those challenges is to bring together experts who speak different technical languages, who approach problems with different methods, and those who are accustomed to different world views. However, these can actually be benefits disguised as detriments. In fact, it is when these challenges are overcome, that real change starts to occur. One example is in the supply chain of the agri-food industry. An interdisciplinary team analyzed agricultural, societal, economical, nutritional, and public health factors together to meet the global food security challenge that we are facing globally (2). Another interdisciplinary team is exploring how computer assisted language learning can adapt to meet the needs of the learner or the market by drawing from the outcomes of each individual case. Computer programmers alone could not achieve such a task, but by working with social scientists and psychologist to design the programs and experiments to test outcomes, they were more successful in achieving positive results (3). Although specialized experts in every field are necessary, it appears that the most effective approach to solving the unique and ubiquitous complex problems that face society is by working together.

 

How is it currently being implemented in the US?

With the overwhelming evidence that from the beginning of time, the most efficient method of solving complex problems is by assigning such a task to interdisciplinary teams. Naturally, it would follow that from the earliest point in the training of students and researchers, that they would be accustomed to being able to work on large teams, speak the technical language of those from multiple disciplines, and be able to take into account the considerations of their colleagues from other disciplinary silos. However, in the United states, the implementation of interdisciplinary research is haphazard and largely disorganized.

 

Implementation:

It is left up to the individual university, institute, or center’s discretion on how they see it is best to approach promoting, enforcing, and teaching interdisciplinarity. At Virginia Tech and other institutions like it, centers (4,5,6), institutes (7,8), schools (9), and spaces (10) are established that promote interdisciplinary thought and collaboration. These centers bring together professors, researchers, and students from different disciplines and backgrounds. Some centers are housed within a singular disciplinary department or college, while others across a college or the entire university. Within these centers, the members can be working towards solving a singular problem or a set of similarly themed problems. In other cases, the goal of the center may be to bring together people and ideas that would normally not exist outside of this interdisciplinary eco-system. Others still, are focused on training and instruction and offer interdisciplinary knowledge tracts, short-courses, certificates, and a conduit for parties interested in establishing and nurturing interdisciplinary relationships.

 

Funding:

Interdisciplinary research and collaboration in higher education is not well funded in the US. On a federal and state level, the government provides limited funding to research institutions who write grant proposals and have specific themes, goals, or targets in mind. Those awards are limited and will only go to those institutions with the resources and potential to establish and maintain self-sustaining interdisciplinary research programs. Other programs are directed towards training the future interdisciplinary researchers. These types of programs, such as the IGERT or TEACRS/IRACDA programs that position their trainees to work with researchers outside of their disciplines, are not available at every institution, for every discipline, or for any researcher to utilize (11,12,13,14). Program coordinators must write grant proposals that elucidate a specific problem or theme, and outline their specific ability to carry out the intended research as well as a plan to train the researchers; a plan or curriculum is not provided for them by the national funding agency.

On the university and institutional level, the aforementioned centers are established under the assumption that the interdisciplinary relationships forged within them will yield grant proposals that will be able to sustain the centers’ operation, fund students, researchers, and the research itself (7,8,15).

It is important to note that there are exceptions in either direction, with cases where the University or Institute either wholeheartedly support and fully fund interdisciplinary centers or do little in the way of encouraging the establishment of and perhaps even discourage cross-collaboration between any of their programs.

 

How is it currently being implemented in EU?

In our visits to different universities across three countries as well as conversations with administrators, students, and faculty members, we found that nearly every university we visited had an interdisciplinary focus. Much like in the US, there were both those who in disciplinary silos and those who transcended these silos within their realm of coursework and teaching. However, when it came to where and how they conducted their research, how the university, and departments regarded research and how it was to be conducted, interdisciplinarity was ever-present.

 

 

Implementation:

The main difference between US and EU was that it was integrated into their system and instead of the interdisciplinary aspects being seen as extra-curricular structures, the interdisciplinary structures and disciplinary departments are given equal weight. At University of Zurich for example, they have 12 interdisciplinary ‘Thrust Areas’ that serve as the homes for their research. At UniBasel they have their Science Core, where the majority of research is done in an interdisciplinary environment. UniStras has similar research centers around the campus, each with different thrust areas. Some of these collaborate with the French national research organizations (CNRS, INSERM) which have their own rules and policies on how interdisciplinary a team must be. PoliMi, SUPSI, and USI have research labs that are independent of department, but simply based on goals and outcomes.

These centers and spaces serve as the research output centers and are not housed in any one department. In fact, a professor may fulfil their teaching duties in one department but their research and students will be in these parallel structures. The same framework exists for the coursework for the students where their research is conducted in a different place as their course work. This is also evident in the students’ plans of studies where many had required course work that was interdisciplinary as well as translational extra-disciplinary classes. In fact, at ETH Zurich for example, 1/3 of the students’ studies must not be related to their research topic.

Additionally, PoliMi and others have a consortium called the Alta Scoula where they form interdisciplinary groups of 6 and get industry experience.

A collaborative environment exists outside of the laboratory as well. We found many of the universities had a “mittelbau’ where the non-tenured technical and research staff came together for symposia, research discussions, and social activities. This was to promote cross-disciplinary communication and possible collaboration. Student groups, student government, and outreach programs even elucidate one of their primary goals to promote collaboration and interdisciplinary work.

 

Funding:

Funding was a topic that was hard to get answers about in general from our conversations with the administrators and faculty members. Simply put, there was never a debate as to whether or not the University, the students, or the research being done (interdisciplinary or not) deserved to be funded. The general theme was that the majority of the funding was public, with large percentages coming from the federal government and some coming from the local cantonal government. The public was happy to allow their taxes to pay for education and expected little in return. At the University of Zurich, they mentioned that they did little outreach to the public, but this appears to be more an attempt to engage the public in science rather than to justify the spending.

At the universities, third party funding is small, typically no more than 5-10% of overall research money. Some companies and external funding sources may impose restrictions over what type or research is conducted and who the teams are comprised of, which includes the disciplinary make-up. Some (UZ) mentioned that they have run into issues with external funding sources being weary of interdisciplinary teams while others (UniStras) mentioned that external funding agencies required it to some extent on some projects. Beyond that, most projects were funded from internal funds that were budgeted from government funds that came directly from the university and were aligned with the universities’ goals and aims, including interdisciplinarity.

Why is it so different?

The US educational system is disjointed and independent. The closest systems that are present in the US are ones like Pennsylvania (Penn-State), New York (SUNY), or California (UC-XX), which are state funded and have varying levels of communication and organization between their branches. The Penn State System of Higher Education for example, allows a student to take any course and have the credits count towards a degree from any of the Universities within their system (16). This level of streamlining and communication, which is not present on a national or even entire state level, would ensure that institutes and centers would exist in the same form and serve the same purposes for students and faculty members across the board.

When looking at what made the European system so streamlined as compared with the US, we turn to the Salzburg principles of the Bologna accord that were mentioned many times by the administrators and professors that presented during our visits to the different universities across campus. Articles 8 and 9 address this directly by stating:

 

8. The promotion of innovative structures: to meet the challenge of interdisciplinary training and the development of transferable skills.

 

  1. Increasing mobility: Doctoral programmes should seek to offer geographical as well as interdisciplinary and intersectoral mobility and international collaboration within an integrated framework of cooperation between universities and other partners.” (17)

 

These principles, and the details included in each article, require that every university have an action plan for implementing interdisciplinary research in the ways that were done in the past, while still adapting to the state of the art as it evolves. The articles even give concrete examples of how they can be implemented.

Lastly, article 10 indirectly supports this thesis by stating that programs in general should have proper funding in order to exist and to maintain the highest standards. This goes hand in hand with the idea of establishing centers for interdisciplinarity that are sustainable and will continue on long after they are established. In this report, I am not calling for an overhaul of the US’s educational system. Rather, I am simply stating that Europe took advantage of an immense opportunity when they experienced a substantial reform in the form of Bologna process. Recognizing how productive and necessary the interdisciplinary process can be and incorporating it into the required articles is something we can learn from in the US and is perhaps one of the most important actions they took to insure their scientific and academic success for the future

 

 

References:

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