Signals, Decision, and Meaning in Biology, Chemistry,
Physics, and Engineering
November 15, 2003
The National Academies Keck Futures Initiative Conference brings together over 100 of the nation’s best and brightest researchers from academic, industrial, and government laboratories to ask questions about—and to discover interdisciplinary connections between—important areas of cutting-edge research.
At the first Keck Futures meeting in November 2003, the Committee on Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research hosted three focus groups to brain-storm policies and practices that funding organizations, educators, academic administrators, researchers, and students could implement to overcome barriers to interdisciplinary research (IDR). The focus was on the role that policies and practices related to training, education, evaluation, teambuilding, funding, hiring, and employment could play in facilitating IDR. The committee was especially interested in learning about effective programs and policies; to this end, the moderator was encouraged to steer
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Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research G Focus Groups on Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research NATIONAL ACADEMIES KECK FUTURES INITIATIVE CONFERENCE Signals, Decision, and Meaning in Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Engineering Irvine, California November 15, 2003 The National Academies Keck Futures Initiative Conference brings together over 100 of the nation’s best and brightest researchers from academic, industrial, and government laboratories to ask questions about—and to discover interdisciplinary connections between—important areas of cutting-edge research. At the first Keck Futures meeting in November 2003, the Committee on Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research hosted three focus groups to brain-storm policies and practices that funding organizations, educators, academic administrators, researchers, and students could implement to overcome barriers to interdisciplinary research (IDR). The focus was on the role that policies and practices related to training, education, evaluation, teambuilding, funding, hiring, and employment could play in facilitating IDR. The committee was especially interested in learning about effective programs and policies; to this end, the moderator was encouraged to steer
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Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research discussion from that of barriers to one of suggestions and solutions. The data gathered from the focus groups were used to help the committee to develop findings and recommendations. It is important to keep in mind in reviewing these comments that this group is made up entirely of those interested in IDR. FOCUS-GROUP QUESTIONS The following discussion questions were provided to each moderator for discussion. Training and Education Should undergraduate students be encouraged to pursue an interdisciplinary degree? What policies can institutions adopt that would facilitate team teaching, curricular development, and cross-departmental course offerings? What programs and/or policies would be most effective at facilitating interdisciplinary training of graduate students and postdoctoral scholars? Hiring and Employment What can institutions do to facilitate hiring and review of interdisciplinary faculty? Are joint appointments a good idea? Are multi-departmental review panels effective? Should outside experts be appointed to review panels for interdisciplinary tenure candidates? What strategies can an interdisciplinary tenure-track researcher employ to enhance the review process? What can faculty and departments do to enhance the process? Evaluation What are effective criteria for evaluating interdisciplinary papers? Interdisciplinary researchers? Interdisciplinary programs? What can investigators, institutions, and funding agencies do to enhance the review/evaluation procedure? Does interdisciplinary research require different or additional criteria for evaluation than disciplinary research? Establishing a Team What programs and policies can institutions and funding agencies adopt to facilitate collaboration between disciplines? Are seed grants effective? Are meetings effective? What are the critical aspects of team formation?
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Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research Funding What are the most effective funding strategies for facilitating IDR? Should funders focus on research grants in emerging areas, seed grants for teams, infrastructure development, training and education, and/or internal polices and procedures to facilitate submission and review of interdisciplinary proposals (e.g., panel review, site visits, etc.)? Are there polices that federal agencies or institutions could adopt that would facilitate IDR, such as budgeting structures, cost-sharing, allowing for co-PIs, etc.? FOCUS-GROUP FORMAT The moderators were Bruce Alberts, Bill Wulf, and Harvey Fineberg, presidents of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine, respectively. Each focus group consisted of about 20 researchers in many fields. The results of those discussions follow this summary. Each used a different discussion technique, and the results reflect that. SUMMARY OF FOCUS GROUP A DISCUSSION (MODERATOR, HARVEY FINEBERG, PRESIDENT, INSTITUTE OF MEDICINE) Definition Scale and scope: A researcher in biomolecular systems at Pacific North-west National Laboratory suggested that “what drives IDR is the scale and scope of the problem.” He said that a truly interdisciplinary problem would require five to 10 investigators; for biologic systems, it would involve not only biologists, but also mathematicians, instrument builders, and others. “As long as funding agencies say they want to solve large problems, we’ll see communities come together” to do so. Models Promoting collaboration: A professor of chemistry and neurosciences at the University of Illinois Beckman Institute noted that “it’s a physical space, with no funding, and people from many labs.” They share space and equipment. Each participant does not do disciplinary work but builds on it and is encouraged to ask for collaboration. The Institute “formalizes the idea that you’ll work with someone else.” Faculty can apply for a semester’s training in another discipline, as long as their faculty head signs off on it.
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Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research Beyond departments: In 2005, when the University of California, Merced, opens its campus, its School of Natural Sciences will have no departments and will integrate science and engineering. The dean of the new school said that it had made a commitment to hire faculty with excellence in a particular discipline to avoid the “risk of being shallow across whatever you do”. One challenge she noted was that the 15 faculty who had already been recruited tended to interview faculty applicants according to criteria of excellence that differed between disciplines. “Until we get that it will be hard to be successful, especially at the junior level.” Crossing theoretical disciplines: A scientist at the Salk Institute praised the Sloan Foundation’s program in theoretical neurobiology, which brings young theoreticians from the physical, mathematical, and computer sciences into neurobiology at five university-based research centers. Some have gone on to start their own laboratories he said, although faculties sometimes blocked cross-disciplinary hiring recommended by “visionary” search committees. Policies and Procedures Tenure as an obstacle: A professor in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Program in Science, Technology, and Society said that the largest obstacle to IDR in universities has been tenure. When one is a postdoctoral scholar or an assistant professor, she said, it is risky to work outside one’s own department. She applauded the initiative of the Harvard Medical School in founding its new Department of Systems Biology, which is inherently interdisciplinary. Beyond departments: A professor in the Harvard Medical School Department of Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology said, “I think universities could get rid of departments.” She admitted that her view came out of her work in cancer research, which is highly interdisciplinary. Three effective procedures: A professor in the Harvard Department of Physics and Applied Physics recommended three procedures that he had found effective in promoting interdisciplinary work: 24-hour retreats on campus for groups of faculty. He described a successful retreat on neurosciences, in which faculty established personal connections and talked about long-term interests in ways that they could not easily do in the midst of busy schedules. Working in other departments and experiencing related or relevant fields. Getting some seed money from the university (for example, the dean’s fund) for a postdoctoral or graduate student who would like to work in different fields.
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Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research Teaching in mixed groups: A biology professor who works in biomedical research in a Canadian Organized Research Unit noted the risk of teaching biology to computer-science students because of the difficulty of communication. He had found that a computer scientist might say he was going to do one thing and a biologist something else, and it could turn out that they intended to do the same thing. For a biologist, however, the risk was necessary to model biologic systems. “Certainly, computer-science students are fascinated by questions in biology. You need to take that step and go out and teach in mixed groups and learn their language.” Policies at state universities: The Texas A&M Department of Chemical Engineering and Chemistry had found it possible to share National Institute of Health (NIH) grants “so that everyone gets something.” When the university budgets were cut by the state, however, principal investigators (PIs) had to show the revenue generated by their own research to maintain their share of state funding, and the sharing mechanism was in jeopardy. Promoting communication: A Salk Institute investigator saw communication as a key, especially better communication between funding committee members of different backgrounds and better communication of the intellectual content of one’s own work. Training and Education Following one’s curiosity: Entelos,1 a private firm working in computer modeling of diseases, needs both mathematicians and engineers for its interdisciplinary work. It prefers to hire “a great person rather than someone who’s already been trained in two disciplines.” The chief scientist referred to her own experience as a graduate student, when she and her colleagues first attained a solid grounding in their field and then benefited by following their curiosity to work on problems in other departments. “Excellence at the interface”: In training young IDR investigators, a member of the Pharmacology Department of the University of Texas argued in favor of “finding individuals who have more than one discipline in one brain, to make that creative stuff happen.” People who are excellent in one discipline, he said, may not make good collaborators. The ideal scenario is to “create that depth in individuals at the interface. Students brought up in that ethic and studying at the interface learn how to be good in more than one thing.” 1 Entelos is a firm that develops large-scale computer models of human disease using a patented PhysioLab technology. In partnership with biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, it seeks to speed development of new treatments for such diseases as asthma, obesity, and diabetes.
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Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research Planning IDR from scratch: In planning of curricula for the new School of Natural Sciences of the University of California, Merced, two challenges had arisen: (1) faculty did not want to “give up any content in their courses” and (2) planning an interdisciplinary undergraduate curriculum turned out to be harder than planning an interdisciplinary graduate curriculum because faculty felt a need to cover the basics first. Inviting students to initiate research: The norm is for a PI to recruit graduate students on the basis of a project whose goals have been determined. In that system, students often feel like hired hands working for someone else. A Harvard professor argued for the reverse: Challenge graduate students, who may be more up to date than their professors, to design their own research projects and win the support of PIs and laboratories. Flinging graduate students through the “gates of Hell”: A professor at Thomas Jefferson University argued in favor of exposing engineers to biologic problems by putting them through biology courses at the same level as medical students. They would collect their own data and gain a realistic view of gathering data. “Then they become the ‘glue people’ that you need in multidisciplinary groups.” Several people voiced strong agreement with that proposal. SUMMARY OF FOCUS GROUP B DISCUSSION (MODERATOR, BILL WULF, PRESIDENT, NATIONAL ACADEMY OF ENGINEERING) The focus group started with the premise that there are six targets for which specific short- and long-range goals could be set to foster IDR: education, culture, hiring and employment, publication, evaluation, and funding. The goals are listed below by target. Some of the proposed goals are seemingly straightforward and could be implemented at the individual, department, or institution level with little financial or logistical difficulty. For example, cross listing graduate-school classes across departments or writing abstracts for a more general scientific audience would take little effort and may reap large rewards. Others would require more long-range strategic planning, such as adjusting the National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program to contain more mentors so that the undergraduate students would have a broader exposure to cross-discipline projects. Education Cross-list all graduate-school courses in all departments. Allow greater freedom with respect to electives in graduate school.
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Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research Offer more classes that have no prerequisites. Foster joint-degree programs. Create a buddy system—for example, with a graduate student in biology matched with one in mathematics. Promote informal lunch meetings between them. Make them explain their work to each other. The summer NSF REU program should require two mentors, not just one. Mandate industrial internships before granting the PhD. Industry is intrinsically more interdisciplinary than academe. Culture The only thing that will really foster change is years of lunches shared by disparate groups. It is not the faculty who are in the best position to spur IDR, but rather the “lab rat” who is actually doing experiments. Mimic the 1993 “Grand Challenge” by having a central entity define long-term unresolved problems and issue them as challenges. Co-locate departments; don’t allow physical space to constitute a barrier between departments (for example, biochemistry on one floor, microbiology on the next, comparative biology on the next). Establish postdoctoral salary parity across fields (physical-science postdoctoral scholars are paid much more than biology postdoctoral scholars). Encourage graduate students to switch departments when doing postdoctoral work. Hiring and Employment Create incentives for departments to create and fill interdisciplinary positions (along the lines of affirmative action). Highlight the availability of people with interdisciplinary skills (such as people who run core facilities). Publication Do not promote new journals that are classified as being in single disciplines. Submit papers only to interdisciplinary journals. Promote and fund databases that cover multiple journals in many fields. (For example, the National Library of Medicine searches almost no mathematical fields.) We are in an article-based, not a journal-based, publication environment. Require that abstracts be written for a more general audience.
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Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research Evaluation (for promotion and in peer review) Reward at the institutional level. Make sure that departments do not hold up promotion of cross-department faculty. (Sometimes an institution has to intervene or simply make promotion and tenure decisions only at the institution level.) Document evaluation norms by discipline. For example, in physics, conference proceedings are much more prestigious than publications; in biology it is the opposite. Reward people for publishing in a variety of journals, as opposed to only journals with high impact factors—for example, two articles in journals sponsored by very different professional societies (such as the Society for Neuroscience and the American Physical Society). Funding Promote streamlined procedures for interdisciplinary signoff at universities. Getting a joint grant is too laborious, and the deans want to know only who is subject to the direct costs and overhead. Promote a mechanism for 5-6 years of support based solely on the drive to learn another discipline or to learn core new skills not normally attributed to the “home” department. Students need to know that some places, such as publishing and industry, financially reward people who have multidisciplinary backgrounds. SUMMARY OF FOCUS GROUP C DISCUSSION (MODERATOR, BRUCE ALBERTS, PRESIDENT, NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES) The discussion focused primarily on evaluation and funding mechanisms. The following is a compilation of the participants’ top recommendations for facilitating IDR. Evaluation Go beyond research issues in evaluating IDR; education is a key factor as well. Focus on the quality of the people who are submitting grant proposals. Funding Mechanisms The next generation is the key to IDR, so look at the experience of the NIH Alliance for Cellular Signaling in working with junior scholars.
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Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research Effective programs that have a large impact on the potential impact of a beginning researcher to hire people and obtain computers and other necessary equipment need not be high-cost. For example, the NIH FIRST (R29) award provides a research support for newly independent, biomedical and behavioral science investigators to initiate their own research and demonstrate the merit of their own research ideas.2 Focus more on middle-level people who have tenure, because they are able to take the risks entailed in IDR. Focus funding on fellows and on travel grants that provide them with the necessary independence. Create independent IDR institutions where people can come together on equal footing. Institutional Mechanisms Focus attention on institutional roles—the leadership of an organization is critical. Create universitywide interdisciplinary research positions. Other issues: When disciplines come together, they need to do so on an equal basis Treat postdoctoral fellows as the glue between researchers who should be joint advisers. Study history. Make medical schools more hospitable to IDR. 2 Guidelines for FIRST awards Web page http://grants2.nih.gov/grants/policy/r29.htm.