Interdisciplinary research

By Elizabeth Cherry
Writing from central New York State, I find myself relieved that the cold winter weather finally has subsided and the early signs of spring have arrived. The days are light late into the evening; hyacinths and daffodils are blooming, with tulips ready to follow in short order; and the robins have returned from—well, from wherever they sagely choose to spend their winters.

Along with the outward signs of seasonal change, another topic in the air these days is interdisciplinary work: this now-perennial buzzword seems to be a point of discussion in almost every meeting I have attended lately. Whenever the subject it brought up, it returns me to the question I still can’t seem to answer: how can institutions truly support interdisciplinary research? On one level, this seems an almost pointless question, because the fact is that interdisciplinary research goes on every day at numerous institutions, and it seems unlikely to stop. Yet, as one of its practitioners, I feel that many of us who conduct research across disciplines must do so in spite of our institutional structures, policies, and cultures.

Among the first obstacles many of us encounter are our own academic units—and this often happens right from the hiring process. With power in universities generally vested within departments—tenure-track lines, voting rights, etc.—departments are guaranteed to be conservative guardians of their respective disciplines. How is someone whose research spans multiple fields to be classified? Although those of us engaged in interdisciplinary research like to think that we have expertise in multiple disciplines, it happens all too often that we are regarded as outsiders in all fields, not sufficiently “committed” to any particular field regardless of factors like undergraduate and graduate training and research area. For example, I am at times viewed with suspicion in my home department, the School of Mathematical Sciences, because my Ph.D. is in Computer Science, despite the fact that my Ph.D. work was in scientific computing (a course we offer!) and my undergraduate degree was in mathematics. A colleague of mine was told he was “too interdisciplinary” to be hired by a particular department, although all his degrees were in the advertised field and he was actively collaborating with faculty in that department with similar interests. The discouraging fact is that many departments question whether faculty with cross-disciplinary interests and backgrounds will defend the purity of the discipline and are reluctant to hire faculty who could be seen as having a foot in another department.

Sometimes policies related to professional advancement can quash nascent interdisciplinary efforts. For example, some departments consider only publications in journals specific to the field in tenure and promotion decisions. Interdisciplinary work often can and should be published in different journals; such publication policies force faculty members to choose between honestly advancing their research where their work will be most visible and improving their odds of getting tenure by publishing in less suitable journals. Similarly, it may be expected that faculty members obtain funding from particular sources, even when other funding opportunities may be available for work across disciplines. Of course, funding agencies themselves can hinder interdisciplinary research by rejecting applications that stray from traditional disciplinary or programmatic boundaries. These are not issues that have not been noted by many others before, but it is depressing that I personally have yet to see any serious attempts to address these obstacles.

All this occurs despite the fact that some of the most creative research being done happens at the interfaces of disciplines, or in bringing techniques and tools developed in one discipline to bear on problems of an entirely different discipline, and that those trying to develop longer-term agendas focus exactly on increasing connections across disciplines. For example, the National Research Council’s Mathematics in 2025 report notes that the value of the mathematical sciences would be increased by including more mathematical scientists who “understand the role of the mathematical sciences in the wider world of science, engineering, medicine, defense, and business” and “communicate well with researchers in other disciplines.” The report goes on to urge the development of creative solutions to the types of obstacles discussed above. But I am not sure what actions are being taken and when individual researchers are likely to see these effects.

Certainly, some shifts in policies and culture can be implemented, such as allowing publications in a broader range of disciplines to count toward career advancement and tenure. But as long as power remains centralized within departments, it is not hard to understand why departments feel they must remain “doctrinally pure”—for example, with tenure-track lines awarded to specific departments, no department would want to risk “giving away” a position by hiring someone who might end up aligning more with a different department. On the other hand, efforts to work outside traditional departments often encounter new obstacles. Administration of programs not housed within departments is often difficult—either no one wants ownership or everyone does—and joint appointments for faculty members across two or more departments can be problematic for faculty going up for tenure.

I personally find research that integrates multiple disciplines the most interesting, challenging, and rewarding of endeavors, and institutional roadblocks will not stop me from pursuing this path. But it is becoming increasingly important that we train new mathematicians, scientists, and engineers not to feel confined by traditional disciplinary boundaries—and if we do so, we must make sure they will not graduate only to face barriers that impede their further career advancement. Given the growing need for and individual interests in developing cross-disciplinary approaches to solve the problems we face, we need to develop creative new ways to encourage and support interdisciplinary perspectives in our research as well as in preparatory graduate and undergraduate education in mathematics and related fields. Many different task forces and other steering bodies already are seeking to identify the best ways to promote cross-disciplinary work. The trick will be to implement best practices locally in meaningful ways that will support interdisciplinary research efforts to improve the lives of individual mathematicians, scientists, and engineers doing this important work.

Categories: Magazine, Editorial

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