Academic Research is in Need of an Overhaul

by Brian Herman, Published on April 22, 2014


Federal government spending on research is under threat due to sweeping budgetary pressures, and corporate spending on R&D isn’t what it used to be.


That leaves universities partnered with industry to fill the R&D void and solve the world’s thorniest problems – like combating diseases and feeding a burgeoning global population.


Universities can and should fulfill this key scientific leadership role, but they will need to fundamentally change their approach to how research is conducted.


Many are mired in a culture of age-old discipline prejudices that inhibit, for example, engineers from working with physicians, economists from working with life scientists and all disciplines from incorporating humanists and social sciences.


The irony is thick: the very institutions most equipped to help solve the world’s most pressing issues have tremendous difficulty solving the very basic human problem of working together.


The American Academy of Arts and Sciences last year looked at how best to recalibrate the formidable powerhouse that is the U.S. research and development establishment. The Academy made some very pointed observations about rampant myopia at universities.


“The promise of interdisciplinary approaches has been noted for many years, and both universities and funding agencies have invested considerable effort into fostering such collaborations,” the report said.


“However, both universities and funding agencies continue to be characterized by inflexible disciplinary and mission boundaries…It is the dismantling of disciplinary boundaries, rather than ad hoc collaborations, that could transform the scientific enterprise and deliver the potential to address previously intractable problems.”


At universities, isolation of traditional academic departments is commonplace with experts in distinct fields mainly talking to, and writing for, those from their own tribe.


The Academy accurately captures the cultural problem. Academic departments “are often isolated from one another, separated into distinct schools of medicine, engineering, agriculture and basic sciences. Results are published in specialized journals and presented at specialized meetings.”


The federal government, a huge engine of scientific funding, reinforces the silo mentality. Research funds “are distributed across dozens of specialized agencies, each with its own mission and culture, each motivated to look distinct and separate from the other agencies in the eyes of congressional appropriators.”


This is not to say that scientists at universities don’t collaborate with one another. They certainly do. But collaboration is a relative term. So much more could be achieved if the traditional silos were eradicated, if scientists and academicians weren’t inculcated from the outset of their careers to treat collaboration outside their field of expertise as a distant cousin.


Most scientists are driven to achieve a significant impact on society and the economy. But that will only happen if scientists from disparate disciplines share research, collaborate, conduct experiments together, and stop defining themselves solely by their discipline.


When researchers and scientists truly work across disciplines, great things can happen. “It occasions the emergence of new data and new interactions from out of the encounter between disciplines. It offers us a new vision of nature and reality,” according to the International Center for Transdisciplinary Research.


An example of such collaboration is in the area of precision agriculture. To feed a steadily increasing global population, engineers working on robotics, sensors, and informatics are working side-by-side with economists, agriculturists, social scientists, environmentalists, policy makers and global food industries. This new transdisciplinary approach will be required for academicians to solve the greatest challenges of our day.


James Stavridis, the former commander of NATO forces, made a compelling observation about collaboration that is as apropos for scientists as it is for government officials.

“No one person, no one alliance, no one nation, no one of us is as smart as all of us thinking together,” he said.


He’s right.

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