Feature

In the last 100 years, the average number of departments per university more than quintupled. But rather than reflecting a trend toward specialization, many of the added departments represent interdisciplinary collaborations--unions of fields that form, for example, biophysics and neuroscience--according to a March 2003 report by the National Academy of Sciences.

Federal funding for research appears to be echoing this trend, as organizations including the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) increasingly direct their dollars toward multidisciplinary collaborations. NIH, for example, has set aside $36 million to create 21 interdisciplinary research centers, where scientists rally around a common problem such as obesity. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), too, is funding groups of scientists from different fields through its Centers of Excellence, which will receive up to $18 million over three years (see "Making psychological research a priority for countering terrorism," March Monitor). One such center, co-directed by University of Maryland psychology professor Arie Kruglanski, PhD, will investigate terrorism broadly, addressing such issues as the social and political underpinnings of terrorism and terrorism's psychological effects.

"Big interdisciplinary social science will attract big money, particularly if...we have real-world concrete deliverables that deal with large-scale social problems," says Kruglanski. "Terrorism is only one such issue."

In addition to creating applications for scientific knowledge, interdisciplinary research can add to social science's store of basic knowledge, Kruglanski says. And as support for basic research becomes increasingly tight (see the first article in this series, "Transitioning to 'translational' times," March Monitor), psychological scientists may increasingly look to tap into funding for large collaborative projects.

Contributing to museum education

While many new collaborations stretch across institutions as well as disciplines, the new Center for Cognitive and Educational Neuroscience (CCEN) at New Hampshire's Dartmouth College taps primarily into resources within the university. However, Dartmouth scientists from many different fields--including education, computer science, neuroscience and psychology--will join forces to develop a picture of how learning happens across the lifespan. Along the way, subgroups will investigate how cultural background affects learning and how the brain changes as it acquires new information. The researchers, supported by a $21.8 million grant from NSF, also plan to create methods for effectively teaching subjects such as reading and science.

"We want to build bridges between the researchers who study brain activity involved in learning and the teachers who need a deeper understanding of learning processes," says CCEN director Michael Gazzaniga, PhD, a psychology professor and also Dartmouth's dean of faculty.

In the spirit of collaboration, CCEN researchers will work with educators at the nearby Montshire Museum of Science. They will use the museum to test new ways to display information while also helping museum staff apply new research on the learning. For example, an as-yet-unpublished, NASA-funded study by Dartmouth psychology professor Kevin Dunbar, PhD, recently found that the usual way textbooks and videotapes illustrate the Earth's tilt and the resulting seasons--with two-dimensional models showing the earth half in shadow--leaves many people confused and misinformed.

"People have a hard time relating the geometry of that flat diagram to three-dimensional space," says museum director W. David Goudy.

Under the new CCEN grant, Dunbar will collaborate with education experts and museum officials to design an exhibit on seasons that does a better job illustrating the astronomy--perhaps using a three-dimensional model. Eventually they may also develop better ways to explain seasons in textbooks, Goudy notes.

At the same time, psychologists and neuroscientists involved with the collaboration might explore how the brain visualizes abstract three-dimensional processes, using brain-imaging technology.

However, the roughly 40 people involved with the new center are only just beginning to flesh out their research agenda through subgroup meetings and conference calls. Once the center gains a physical presence--in a building currently undergoing renovation--Gazzaniga will hold regular meetings and bring in outside speakers. And perhaps most importantly, the CCEN will hire staff to keep the group working together, Gazzaniga says.

"These [centers] are complex and time consuming," he notes. "If you undertake one of them you need good managers working on it so the scientists can do their thing."

Stomping out stigma

The rewards of running a large collaboration balance out the time demands, says Patrick Corrigan, PsyD, a psychology professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and head of the Chicago Consortium for Stigma Research (CCSR). The consortium--which includes University of Chicago psychology professor Kenneth Rasinski, PhD, and Northwestern University psychology professor Galen Bodenhausen, PhD--takes an interdisciplinary approach to elucidating the processes of social stigma and decreasing discrimination against groups such as those with mental illness. Supported in part by a $1.7 million, five-year grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) awarded in 2004, CCSR includes about 30 researchers from eight different Chicago-area universities and research centers.

The NIMH funding allows consortium manager Amy Watson, PhD, to produce a newsletter, organize monthly meetings and bring in outside speakers, all of which serve to keep the group of psychologists, social scientists, statisticians, lawyers and communications professors in contact and working together, says Watson, who holds a doctoral degree in social work.

Such multidisciplinary collaboration is vital to gaining a full understanding of stigmatizing processes, says Corrigan.

"We used to be dominated by the view of how stigma works at the level of the individual," he says. "By working with sociologists we have gone through a giant evolution of thought, allowing us to study stigma on the level of social structures."

For example, one as-yet-unpublished CCSR study analyzed every state law introduced in 2002 that mentioned mental illness, a total of 968 bills. Content coding revealed that about half of the bills applied laws to people with mental illness, while the other half applied laws based on disability due to mental illness. For example, one state might limit "mentally ill people" from purchasing firearms, while another may apply such a law only to people with cognitive deficits due to mental illness.

Bills that limit people's freedom based on their prior history, perhaps at a psychiatric hospital, may contribute to societal attitudes that the mentally ill are dangerous, says Watson, a study author. The data from the research, including analysis of each state's legislative record, might prove useful to those advocating for the rights of those with mental illness, Watson notes.

Understanding and eliminating stigma will require continued collaborations such as this one, says Emeline Otey, PhD, the sociocultural processes and health disparities program officer at NIMH.

"Many of the problems we are looking at are not simple problems," she says. "Many things influence and contribute to them; it takes contributions from all the disciplines."

Taking on terror

Terrorism also is not a simple problem, says Kruglanski. It involves individuals, groups, governments, laws and economics, he says. To address terrorism's many faces, Kruglanski and his colleagues are including experts in all of the above listed fields at the new Homeland Security Center of Excellence for Behavioral and Social Research on Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism, based at the University of Maryland in College Park.

The fourth such center funded by DHS, Kruglanski's team will investigate many issues including the economic and political issues that give rise to terrorism and persuasion methods used by terrorist organizations.

"Most research in the social sciences is produced by one or two people who share the same background and who share the same methods," says center director and criminology professor Gary LaFree, PhD. "In our new center we are going to work to get eight or 10 people to work on the same problem."

Their ultimate goal: to help the U.S. government identify fertile ground for terrorist groups and perhaps even prevent the economic and political conditions that give rise to terrorism in the first place.

Though specific research projects have yet to be fleshed out--funding for the center was announced in January--the center's 60 researchers have divided into three subgroups. The first group, headed by Kruglanski, will investigate how terrorist cells form, organize and recruit members. The second will determine how such groups function internally and is headed by Rick McCauley, PhD, a social psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. The third, headed by University of Colorado at Boulder sociologist Kathleen Tierney, PhD, will research the effects of terrorism on societies and advise the government how to respond in ways that minimize terrorism's ability to incite fear.

In addition to addressing an important social concern, Kruglanski hopes the center will engender greater communication among disciplines.

"This is a wonderful opportunity for social sciences to come together, instead of being buried in our own little niches," he says.

The research dollar overhaul

This article is the third in a series focusing on the changing funding climate for behavioral science research. The series' final article next month will detail unusual sources of funding for psychological scientists.