Written By Julio Roa
The Global Perspective Program (GPP) gave me the opportunity to explore interdisciplinary studies from an international context. Through conversations with students, faculty, and staff from several universities in Switzerland, France, and Italy, I studied the value and the future of interdisciplinary collaborations in Europe. The GPP allowed me to learn and contrast the interdisciplinary efforts in Europe with my experience in the United States and Latin America.
According to the National Academies, interdisciplinary research “is a mode of research by teams or individuals that integrates information, data, techniques, tools, perspectives, concepts, and/or theories from two or more disciplines or bodies of specialized knowledge to advance fundamental understanding or to solve problems whose solutions are beyond the scope of a single discipline or area of research practice.” Complex, international research problems such as cancer, hunger, clean energy, and pollution require the interaction and expertise of academics and practitioners across different fields.
I come from an island that has limited opportunities, where people must have diverse skills and education to be fit for the job market. A better understanding of the value and perception of interdisciplinary research and studies has been a great interest of mine for a long time. As I approach the end of my doctoral studies and prepare to enter the academic world as a professor and researcher, I wanted to understand the opportunities and channels for collaboration among universities in Europe, the United States, and Latin America as well as opportunities for research interactions across different departments within the universities.
Barriers to interdisciplinary collaborations
The Salzburg principles were developed in 2005 during the Bologna Seminar on Doctoral Programs for the European Knowledge Society. These ten basic principles were identified by higher education policy practitioners, university researchers, and doctoral candidates. They present opportunities, challenges, and a set of recommendations and promising practices for improving the quality and competitiveness of European higher education.
Principles eight and nine clearly emphasize disciplinary work by equipping professionals to conduct research in multiple fields but also to communicate across disciplinary lines (Christensen 2005):
“8. The promotion of innovative structures: to meet the challenge of interdisciplinary training and the development of transferable skills.
- 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.”
The Salzburg principles, which in Europe are considered the foundation for continuous improvement of doctoral education, have also identified several barriers that hinder the development and growth of interdisciplinary work in the academic environment. Among these barriers are the existing academic structure; funding availability for interdisciplinary centers and studies; family issues concerning students and academics; gender disadvantages and gender preconceptions in some disciplines; university administrative obstacles; social, cultural, and language obstacles; lack of information on available programs and funding opportunities; opposition from advisors or supervisors; and mobility.
Observations from GPP visits and discussions
In Europe, the Salzburg principles have paved the way for an advancement of the action plan needed to foster interdisciplinary integration.
Most of the visited universities had an interdisciplinary program that was considered an internal unit to the university structure. Some universities integrated the program through a department, and others maintained the program as a department itself. Professors commonly taught and researched in more than one department, and doctoral students often worked for the interdisciplinary centers or as part of more than one department or collaboration between department and industry.
In my discussions with student groups and outreach program mentors and organizers, I found that one of their primary goals is to promote collaboration and interdisciplinary work as a preparation for the future and job market opportunities.
In my experience in the United States, interdisciplinary centers such as the Virginia Tech Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS) are internally funded for only a short period to allow the center to grow and become an economically independent unit.
Administrators and professors at the University of Basel, the oldest university in Switzerland, explained how each department encourages interdisciplinary work and how the state funds interdisciplinary efforts directly. This university also expects co-authorship across disciplines.
Politecnico di Milano, Italy’s largest technical university, has specific interdisciplinary programs and classes in which a consortium is involved in research activities and areas such as nanotechnology, industrial engineering, civil engineering, and math.
Switzerland’s largest university, the University of Zurich, has twelve interdisciplinary centers. They conduct research and community outreach and are mostly government funded.
I received similar feedback from the other universities I visited. At ETH Zurich, for example, one-third of the studies must be in areas not related to research topics.
The School of Arts at Dreispitz promotes the integration of entrepreneurship, technology, and art through creativity labs and entrepreneurship labs where practitioners, students, and the community work together on innovative ideas.
The University of Strasbourg houses research centers with more than ten different disciplines, including robotics and biology. The university emphasizes transdisciplinary coursework and requires so-called soft skills. Most committees are multidisciplinary. Funding for projects comes from different sources, but some do have a minimum requirement for interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary focus.
Most projects conducted at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Southern Switzerland (SUPSI) and the University of the Italian Switzerland (USI) involve interactions different between working professionals, professors, and students from different departments such as computer programming, psychology, and business administration.
In the United States and Latin America, there is a need to lower the barriers that limit interdisciplinary research. Areas of research are continually growing, emerging, melding, and transforming. According to the National Science Foundation (NSF), what is considered interdisciplinary today might be considered disciplinary tomorrow.
Structures and curricula should be open and flexible enough to allow researchers and doctoral candidates to undertake research and dissertations based on an interdisciplinary approach. There is an increasing need for interdisciplinary centers with the capacity to fund and continuously work with new projects.
In Europe, I expected to see more student diversity in higher education. The data show that international students in Europe are mainly from neighboring countries. Interdisciplinary, departmental, and industrial mobility should be encouraged between students, professors, and practitioners.
Reintegration of students to their home communities after a period of cross-border travel remains difficult. Recognition of qualifications and degrees, as well as easier methods to move from the university to industry and across sectors, is still a challenge. Mobility should be encouraged and recognized, not penalized.
In Europe, the Salzburg principles encourage a standard of quality in higher education across borders. This is expected to help reduce several of the factors that hinder interdisciplinary integration. Similar steps might be necessary at a more global level to facilitate cross-continental interdisciplinary programs (European Commission/EACEA/Eurydice, 2015).
Committee on Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research, Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (2004). Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research. National Academies. Washington: National Academy Press, p. 2.
European Commission/EACEA/Eurydice (2015). The European Higher Education Area in 2015: Bologna Process Implementation Report. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.
Christensen, K. K. (2005). Bologna Seminar on Doctoral Programmes for the European Knowledge Society. Salzburg, Austria.