Thursday, February 13, 2014

Summary: Sa, Creso M. (2008), ‘Interdisciplinary strategies’ in U.S. research universities

Creso Sa studies public policy analysis and organizational studies in higher education. In more recent publications, he has explored the intersections between science, innovation, and the economy. He currently has funded projects that explore the science-policy interface in Brazil and the state of entrepreneurship education in Ontario’s postsecondary education.

This article shares findings from a study that investigated the organizational strategies (policies, practices, and structures) U.S. research universities are using to foster interdisciplinary work. Using institutional documents from 100 universities and campus visits to five institutions, Sa shares the strategies that were frequently observed: incentive grants, the establishment of campus-wide institutes, and new models for faculty recruitment and evaluation.

Sa sets up this article by mentioning two 2005 reports from the National Academies of Sciences and the Association of American Universities that represent a common message to research universities that without organizational restructuring to encourage interdisciplinary work, scientific progress and economic and social benefits will be at risk. He also provides the reader with some background on the history of the organizational problems and barriers related to interdisciplinary research and the creation of interdisciplinary centers and institutes to overcome these difficulties. Some of this background is found in this week’s and last week’s readings (See Abbott, 2001; Klein, 1990; and Turner, 2000).
Before Sa shares these strategies for fostering interdisciplinary research, he does note that besides new strategies used for faculty recruitment and evaluation, most strategies do not necessarily challenge the university disciplinary structure. I think this point is an important one to make.

The first strategy Sa describes is the use of incentive grants in which “universities pool resources centrally and redistribute them competitively to form interdisciplinary ‘centers of excellence’” (p. 542). I found it interesting how the author referred to this funding as “seed” money or “start-up” funds with successful collaborations receiving more funding and unsuccessful ones being terminated. While it’s clear that successful collaborations are ones that bring money into the university, I wonder if there are other criteria besides money that make a collaboration successful or not.
Next, Sa describes how steering structures “steer” investments to research infrastructure and services by establishing campus-wide institutes that represent interdisciplinary work. As campus leaders create and support faculty recruitment into academic units like “environmental research”, they affect the direction of research and create what appears to be a “decentralized scientific enterprise.”
Lastly, universities are adopting new strategies for faculty recruitment and evaluation that recognize one’s interdisciplinary work. Universities like Duke now appoint people outside of a particular department to sit in on tenure review committees when evaluating the work of faculty with interdisciplinary interests. Another example is UW-Madison’s Cluster Hiring Initiative which raised money to support new hires into interdisciplinary “clusters”. Similar approaches have been adopted by other major research universities.
I think Sa makes an important point when he states that while it might seem that interdisciplinary collaborations would be built from the “bottom up”, the funding and schemes to produce these collaborations are coming from the “top down”. It seems these images of interdisciplinary work as “bottom-up” or “decentralized” are important for promoting new policies and practices.  What other, possibly false or half-truth, images might universities use to promote interdisciplinary work?

Sa ends the article by proposing examples of future research that needs to take place in order to better understand these strategies and the cultures of interdisciplinary work. A couple examples of future research include studying the short- and long-term outcomes of “seed money” investments and how cultures of interdisciplinary work are established and changed as well as what it’s like to work in these cultures. 

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