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The Executive Officer’s Column

Engineering Better Mileage for Research?

How does U.S. science lead the study of complex social problems, asks John Marburger, the President’s science advisor? How do we study complex scientific problems, asks Rita Colwell, the recent director of the National Science Foundation? How do we lead the scientific effort to understand and cure disease, ask Elias Zehouni, Director of the National Institutes of Health? And, how do we accomplish all this with dwindling federal research dollars? Zerhouni believes the answer is to create a new health research roadmap that embodies interdisciplinary research at its core. Colwell initiated the NSF-wide priority area of “Human and Social Dynamics” that is fundamentally interdisciplinary (see February 2004 Footnotes, p. 5). The Defense Department has its new “Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative.” These questions and the answer—”interdisciplinarity” (is it a word? if not yet, it soon will be)—were the focus of a recent National Academies Convocation on Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research. Coming from the leaders of the world’s largest basic and applied research agencies, this paradigm-shifting strategy deserves the close attention of sociologists. Yet, as one Convocation participant said: “It is one thing for a biologist to meet a chemist, but sociologists are somewhere else entirely; you wouldn’t know what to say to one even if you met them!” A recent study reported on at the Convocation by Diana Photen of the Social Science Research Council suggests this may not be an exaggeration.

By crowning interdisciplinary basic research as the driving engine to advance our way down the road of improved, faster, and more efficient scientific discovery and application, many federal science and research-sponsoring agencies are echoing Zerhouni’s concern that such interdisciplinary research is necessary both to advance science and to avert an eventual devouring of the federal budget by escalating health costs (or education costs, or defense/security costs...). Zerhouni, like other federal science leaders, is strategizing to deal with a natural reality that metaphorically conjures a complex road map. In medical research, increasingly advanced molecular, genetic, cellular, behavioral, and social science research is stumbling repeatedly upon nature’s fundamental structure: the complex interconnectedness of health/illness and our genetic, biological, social, and physical environments. Thus, as individual health disciplines improve their “under the hood” knowledge of nature’s machinery, their drive along the road toward more efficient medical treatments and prevention, direct us inevitably toward intersecting and shared routes of these scientific disciplines.

Are All Roads Leading to “Interdisciplinary”?

Federal science agencies are not the only part of the scientific infrastructure in the United States urging new ways to organize work and the merits of roadmaps with intersecting disciplinary routes. The American Association for the Advancement of Science’s CEO Alan Leshner stated in a February 6 Science editorial, “Academic institutions are still organized primarily into discrete fields of learning. Review and reward systems based on eminence or publication within one’s own disciplinary ‘silo’ may penalize interdisciplinary work. The increasing number of cross-departmental, interdisciplinary research centers in universities is welcome, but most academics are still evaluated for tenure and promotion within their departments.”

These concerns of universities, faculty, researchers, students and funding agencies were core to the National Academies Convocation in January. As part of the “National Academies Keck Futures Initiative,” a $40-million, 15-year program designed to realize the untapped potential of interdisciplinary research, the Academies created a Committee on Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research under the aegis of the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy. The committee has undertaken a major study on how funding organizations and academic institutions can best facilitate interdisciplinary research. Sociologist Jonathan Cole, Provost and Dean of Faculties Emeritus at Columbia University, is a member of the committee. It hopes to identify the most serious obstacles facing interdisciplinary researchers, determine examples of effective policies and practices, and establish recommendations for best practices to facilitate interdisciplinary research in a report to be issued in late 2004 or early 2005. (Learn more at

Detours, Potholes, and Diversions?

New roadmaps attempt to shift our familiar research routes that are often dominated by inwardly focused disciplines by identifying major opportunities and directions for research that no single discipline can travel alone. For some scientific issues this will mean greatly improved “mileage per research dollar”; but scholarship, research and training in core disciplines remain critical to successful interdisciplinary work even as federal research money is emphasizing the latter. How to create more flexible scientific environments, infrastructures and cultures to accommodate the changes that are coming is an important challenge that will affect academic institutions, departments, reward structures, training programs, funding streams, peer review, scientific lifecycles, and even professional associations. Existing structures contain many obstacles to interdisciplinary work, not the least of which was identified by Robert K. Merton as the “Matthew effect”—the products of collaboration tend to flow to the most senior members of the team. Sociologists, and not just sociologists of science, who are looking to the future of the discipline eagerly await the report of the Academies committee on interdisciplinary research.

Sally T. Hillsman, Executive Officer