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NAS releases new report: Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research

The Committee on National Academics Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy (COSEPUP), commissioned an Academy committee (Committee on Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research) to review the state of interdisciplinary research and education and recommend how to foster them.

By Merry Bullock, PhD

Lately, one consistent answer to the question of "where should science be going" is "toward large scale, multidisciplinary research." You have all heard that the wave of the future is "big science" - multi-disciplinary, multi-institution multi-person teams working together on large questions. And there are many examples where such big science is beginning to pay off - in education, in health and in intervention science.

On the one hand, Psychology is no stranger to an interdisciplinary perspective -- situated between the biological and social sciences, psychology lends itself well to multidisciplinary ventures - as behavioral and neuroscience, psycho-linguistics, human factors, behavioral health, family studies, and similar multidisciplinary "disciplines" attest. Yet at the same time, psychology, like other sciences, encompasses large research areas that thrive on smaller scale focused studies. In addition, psychology, like other sciences, has had a hard time overcoming an academic structure that reinforces disciplinary silos and an individual-based model of intellectual property.

The intent of the recent report "Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research" is to change that. The Committee on National Academics Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy (COSEPUP), commissioned an Academy committee (Committee on Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research) to review the state of interdisciplinary research and education and recommend how to foster them. The report summarizes the committee's work and information gathered from conferences, interviews, surveys and focus groups. The report is a call to action, with recommendations for academic institutions, funding organizations, and professional societies. Here are just a few of the recommendations:

Academic institutions can

  • develop ways to fund graduate students across departments

  • develop joint programs and internships with industry

  • provide training opportunities that involve research, analysis and interactions across different fields

Funding organizations can

  • Focus calls for proposals around problems rather than disciplines

  • support universities to provide shared resources across disciplines

  • provide seed funds to allow researchers across disciplines to develop research plans

Professional societies can

  • host workshops on communication and leadership skills needed to foster interdisciplinary teams

  • promote networking to establish interdisciplinary partners and collaborations (see the Decade of Behavior at www.decadeofbehavior.org for some activities in this direction);

  • establish special awards that recognize interdisciplinary researchers or research teams

Information about the Committee to Facilitate Interdisciplinary Research is avaiable at the National Academies Press web site.