Tinkering with tenure: Incentivizing trans-disciplinary research

by Brian Herman, Published on June 11, 2014

The world’s best research could be enhanced if academic institutions would change their approach to how they incentivize researchers.

Specifically, universities should focus more on rewarding those who do transdisciplinary work –where real solutions emerge to real world problems — and less so on those researchers who remain ensconced in their discipline silo.

Admittedly, this is a tough nut to crack given that academia historically has favored the latter over the former. In order for transdisciplinary approach to become embedded in university culture, that most sacred of cows – the tenure process – needs a thorough re-think.

That’s not to say tenure should be scuttled. Rather, transdisciplinary requirements should be built into the attainment of tenure.

When I was Vice President for Research at the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, I helped lead a UT System wide task force that examined how the transdisciplinary research could be done more effectively. This report detailed the need for a strategy that formally recognized collaborative/transdisciplinary/convergent research as a fundamental cultural principal that should guide research activity. Other suggestions included the need to develop shared human and physical research Infrastructures, a searchable data system to identify potential partners and resources for collaboration, and incentives (including financial, cultural and support systems) to promote collaborative/transdisciplinary/convergent research.

One of the most important findings of this effort was that there was plenty of room for improvement when it came to the link between tenure and promotion and conducting transdisciplinary research.

“Some disciplines reject collaborative efforts and do not view it as a favorable activity during departmental/unit promotion and tenure reviews,” the report said.

There’s no “one size fits all” approach that can be grafted everywhere. But in the interest of sparking a robust debate about a possible blueprint for incentivizing transdisciplinary collaboration, below I have reproduced several recommendations pulled directly and nearly verbatim from a recent report by the National Research Council of the National Academies.

From “Convergence: Facilitating Transdisciplinary Integration of Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, Engineering, and Beyond”

Despite differences in size, mission, and organizational structure, the report identified several common characteristics of successful “convergence” research efforts that span disciplines:

Institutions should review their administrative structures, faculty recruitment and promotion practices, cost recovery models, and research support policies to identify and reduce roadblocks to the formation of inter- and intra-institutional partnerships that facilitate convergence.

Academic institutions should develop hiring and promotion policies that include explicit guidelines to recognize the importance of both convergent and disciplinary scholarship, and include criteria to fairly evaluate them.

Institutions will need to provide clear guidance to support faculty engaged in convergent research. Universities can include expectations of collaboration during the hiring process and department leadership can make recommendations to young faculty regarding team-based projects in which they are participating. This establishes a basis for collaborative work.

Tenure and promotion committees will also need guidance that enables them to fairly evaluate convergent as well as unidisciplinary research, teaching, student mentorship, and service efforts.

One concrete step that can be taken toward addressing obstacles to convergent research is for tenure and promotion committees to adopt specific criteria that recognize contributions to such activities.

Tenure and promotion committees can also solicit letters from faculty members’ senior collaborators, something that is not done traditionally, or ad hoc committee members outside of a primary department could be appointed to evaluate the faculty member’s convergent research.

Funding agencies may be able to contribute as well by including language in requests for proposals indicating that collaborative outputs such as coauthored journal articles are appropriate products.

When making promotion and tenure decisions, a faculty member’s impact in the research community beyond outputs such as papers and patents, such as changing an approach to a problem or opening up new avenues of investigation, should also be considered.

New types of reward mechanisms might even be envisioned, although further evidence of the impact of such prizes and awards would need to be explored.

Messages from university leadership as well as formal policy changes may be required, particularly if there is a real or perceived bias on tenure and promotion committees against team-based science or dismissal of contributions to a team-based project, grant, or paper.

At the same time, faculty members must be able to clearly explain the roles they play in convergent research efforts that involve multiple participants.

Major scientific awards like the Nobel Prize generally recognize breakthroughs made by individual researchers and their laboratories. Nobel Prize traditions, for example, stipulate that only a maximum of three laureates may share an award. Is there a role for a new type of award or event honoring collective achievement in science? Would this bring new recognition to those who excel in convergent research and provide new role models for this form of innovation?

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