Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Analytical Summary: Edward J. Hackett’s “Interdisciplinary Research Initiatives at the U.S. National Science Foundation”

Hackett is a faculty member at ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change, who spent 2006-2008 directing the Division of Social and Economic Sciences at the National Science Foundation. (Complete profile here: His piece for this week seems to blend his experiences. His primary focus is on making transparent the inner workings of the NSF’s interdisciplinary programs, in light of the Gulbenkian Commission’s “call for interdisciplinary social science” (p. 248).

His approach to the piece resonates with some emerging themes from our readings and discussions last week. One of those is the idea of functional organization and administration. Last week, Lenoir in particular touched on this basic function of disciplines. Hackett strives to show the ways in which interdisciplinary efforts are organized within the NSF. First, he breaks them into three different funding streams: established interdisciplinary programs, cooperative funding efforts, and new interdisciplinary initiatives. Though he spends the bulk of his chapter on the last one, he breaks out the bureaucratic practices of each.

One major theme that emerges is the concepts of yield and product that interdisciplinary efforts are aimed at, as well as political motives. This results in programs that are “very flexible in their creation, contents, and names, so they can exquisitely responsive to the needs of the day” (p. 252). At the same time, because they are both to produce something and for the public good, Hackett points out that they require “visible and measurable” benefits (p. 252).

Hackett makes very few overt statements on interdisciplinary research (the opposite of the other piece I am summarizing), but rather points out lots of little ideas and contradictions within NSF interdisciplinary research. He at some times seems to critiquing and idea and at other defending it. In fact, his functional approach, an apparent lack of perspective, could be seen as his perspective on interdisciplinary research. Rather than a new or revolution phenomenon, he very much provides a view that ties the rhetoric to their practical implementation and execution.

Additionally, though he never seems to make a value judgement, Hackett also never questions the point of departments. Interdisciplinary is a functional experiment, but one set in terms of departmental knowledge. As the argument builds, one of his most interesting points is:
initiatives allow a vaguer sort of priority setting between fields to occur in a more private and manageable place, with certain crucial parameters… established in advance. Interdisciplinary initiatives also protect the core activities of disciplinary programs by providing a peripheral contact zone for exchanges for other fields and the political environment that is some distance from the intellectual core of the field. (p. 253)
Here he describes interdisciplinary research as a highly functional experiment situated in an our established knowledge structures (disciplines).

Some of this could come from his own experiences in coordinating these projects. His insights on forming committees include getting committees “talking about the same topics in a mutually comprehensive language” (p. 254) as well as practical questions of evaluations and expertise. Rather than coming up with a new language for interdisciplinary, Hackett faced a situation where there were limitations because of disciplinary knowledge. His purpose was not to reconstruct this knowledge in a newly envisioned “interdisciplinary” language, but it rather expose the “reality” of the situation. As he concludes, “Interdisciplinary research certainly bold and relevant, but I know no systematic evidence that this is so” (p. 259). His experiences instead show that it involves facilitating a complex, bureaucratic, difficult process.

1. What do you make of Hackett’s perspective? What’s the advantage of “boots on the ground” experience versus a reimagining of possibilities?
2. Is this argument limited to just government-funded organizations like the NSF or would these same problems be applicable to university programs? What does this suggest about the role of government funding and initiative in the research university?

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